I started asking people for directions to Mylapore’s ‘Alwar kadai’ (Alwar’s shop) almost one kilometre away. Not one said they did not know about it. Finally, I reached the shop – also known as the ‘open book shop’.
What greeted me was a big shed-like setting on the pavement filled with numerous books and no signboard. Ammu Alwar, 42, daughter of R K Alwar, who previously owned the store, stood there tending to customers.
The ‘open book shop’ was started in 1939 and caters to at least 60 customers daily even now. It houses books ranging from David Baldacci’s ‘The Camel Club’ and Kalki Krishnamurthy’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ to those on core JAVA fundamentals. One can see books in various languages such as Tamil, English and even Sanskrit.
Small light bulbs, some of them donated by customers, hang from within the shed-like structure. Ammu Alwar said that her father, who died in 2018, started this shop by selling used books. Alwar himself was an avid reader, she said.
Alwar, who came to the city with the dream of joining the film industry and later acted in a few films, passionately set up this book shop for a living. Ammu said that she, along with her sisters, was brought up inside the bookshop that used to be bigger some years ago. “This shop was where we lived. It was only in 2002 that we moved to a house,” she said.
Ammu Alwar and her sister Julie Alwar manage the shop – which they call ‘Saraswathy vazhum idam’ (the place where the deity Saraswathy resides) – on alternate days.
Ammu said that since her father Alwar used to stay on the pavement near his store, he used to close the shop at 11 pm, take a bath the next morning at the Kapaleeshwarar temple nearby and open the shop at 6 am. So dear was his book shop to him, she added.
However, Ammu said that they close the shop by 6 pm because it does not have an electricity connection now.
Ammu said that many civil servants used to buy books from their shop to study. “Even today people who are doing well in life come to her and say that they had studied using books that my father sold, “she said. Alwar catered to former Tamil Nadu chief minister and Dravidian leader C N Annadurai, she added.
All the books in Alwar kadai are sold at half the original price, Ammu said. She said though they are struggling to make ends meet, they still prioritise buying books for the shop.
“As far as I know, even my father didn’t earn much from the shop. Suppose he earns Rs 10,000 a day he goes and buys books for Rs 1 lakh,” she said.
“We used to scold my father for not saving enough money to buy a house but he always says for him, buying books was the most important thing. But now when my sister and I took over the business, we also came to understand the love for buying books,” Ammu said.
She said that even though some books do not sell immediately, those will be useful to someone later on.
The family’s love for the shop is not without its problems. “We need better protection for the shop. During the rainy season books get wet, the best we can do is to pull the tarpaulin sheets down,” she added.