It has been over 40 years since S A Govindaraju sold his car and filled his 300-sq ft garage space with books. Today, the store tucked away in Chennai’s RA Puram has transformed into a space for book lovers in the city. Called Rare Books, the shop has about 5,000 rare volumes, clippings from newspapers and even advertisements, some of which date back to the 17th century.
“Some of these are as old as Madras itself,” Govindaraju says with a smile on his face as he refers to his prized collection. The former labour law consultant says he loves collecting books, magazines and advertisements about temples, history, culture as well as works of fiction. Many of his collections are on the city of Madras, as Chennai was previously known, and its history. “There are a hundred books here that are more than a century old,” he says. Most of the books are in English.
Among his collections lie old records of Fort St George – said to be the first British fortress in India – that cover the period from 1678 to 1679. Called the ‘Diary and Consultation Books’, it was printed in 1911. The octogenarian says one of the rarest things that he has is an advertisement clipping that he had collected from a newspaper – of ‘P Orr & Sons’, a retail outlet for watches and clocks that opened over a century ago and has now blossomed into a large chain.
Govindaraju, however, adds that the age of the books in his store does not hold as much value for him as their content. The man, who got the habit of collecting books from his father, says that for him each book has a possessive value besides its market value. Asked whether he has attached a possessive value to some of the books in his collection, he nods. “It can be sold at a high price in the international market, but even today I don’t want to sell it,” he says.
Initially, he collected books which then included magazines too and, eventually, almost anything that came in print would make it to his assortment, he explains, fondly reminiscing his first memory of collecting a book – a 1936 version of Ariel. “A penguin book…,” he remembers.
The ardent bibliophile also met with his share of troubles when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Govindaraju says it affected the business and his health also deteriorated around that time. “That affected me badly because my heart still lives here,” he says. “My life is my store. Even today I do all the cleaning and dusting of books. I don’t have an assistant. Even now if you ask me whether a particular book is available or not, I will be able to tell you. Everything is in my memory,” he beams.
Govindaraju says his book-loving customers include judges and civil servants. Such is his devotion to the store that it has no holidays – if someone wants to visit, he just opens the store for them. As long as his health permits, he is only happy to spend time with his books, he underlines.
Even as digital devices are taking over, books in print are something that will live forever, he says, adding that sometimes the sheer high prices of e-books prompt people to return to reading print versions. Asked what he thinks the future of the bookshop will be, Govindaraju chuckles as he replies, “Very great. Very great, provided I survive”.