India: For the love of second-hand books

The second-hand book stalls at the Vijayawada Book Festival intrigue customers with a dose of nostalgia.

[Swati Sanyal Tarafdar/Al Jazeera]
Dhananjay Pandey, left, started selling second-hand books 17 years ago and has participated at the Vijayawada Book Festival for the past seven years [Swati Sanyal Tarafdar/Al Jazeera]

Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India – The complete 32-volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica lay strewn over the book counter at Dhananjay Pandey’s stall at the Vijayawada Book Festival. Pandey, owner of the Pratik Book Centre in Mumbai, notes that the printing of this enormous collection was suspended in 2010. One can get a digital version these days.

As customers browse through his collection, he proudly shows off a set of The Book of Knowledge: Children’s Encyclopedia, printed 100 years ago – the cover discoloured with age, but its pages in good state; a set of huge, hardbound foreign hobby books for children’s items to be made by classy moms – also a few decades old and not available any more; huge atlases, books on history, numerous yellow-paged worm-infected classics and novels.

Most are price-tagged at 50 percent below their retail value, and the aged novels are available for 100 rupees, or less than $2 each. 

In the absence of a decent library in the city, book lovers in Vijayawada, the present capital of the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, look forward to their favourite annual fixture: the Vijayawada Book Festival which begins on January 1 every year. The festival runs for 11 days and is dotted with discussions, seminars, book releases, cultural programmes, competitions for children, walks-for-books and more.

This year, there are 328 stalls and most of the big players in the south Indian publishing scene are participating in the event.

“I started selling second-hand books some 17 years back, and I have been coming to this festival for the last seven years. Every year I see good business. Enticed by my rare collections, many book lovers here have come to know me, and they seek me out and visit my stall during this festival,” says Pandey, who has travelled to the fair from Mumbai.

However, publishers and stall owners say that this year the stalls are much smaller, offering less variety – due to the effect of the recent demonetisation policy which has resulted in financial hardships for many in India, as well as the unavailability of skilled salespersons to cater to book lovers.

READ MORE: India’s demonetisation – ‘Modi didn’t think of the poor’

Buyers browse used book stalls at the  Vijayawada Book Festival [Swati Sanyal Tarafdar/Al Jazeera]
Buyers browse used book stalls at the Vijayawada Book Festival [Swati Sanyal Tarafdar/Al Jazeera]

A book exchange

An unprecedented amount of attention was drawn to the stalls selling old and second-hand books.

Ravi Kumar, joint secretary of the Vijayawada Book Festival Society, which organises the festival along with the Department of Culture and NTR Trust and Language, and a regional publisher himself, says that around 25 of these stalls have been rented by second-hand booksellers from Hyderabad, Secunderabad, and Maharashtra. 

Young readers, college students, and a few older ones crowded the temporary stalls, digging out treasures from the past.

Some of them knew what they wanted – “Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen,” shouted an 18-year-old Monalisa to Pandey.

“Oh, I just want to read it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little torn or yellowed [as long as] it is readable. I don’t get to spend a lot of money on books, you see. And with these, I can read three for the price of one,” Monalisa explains. She is a pharmacy student in one of the reputed city colleges and says she also tries to buy her course books second-hand. 

Her friend, Riddhima, says that the second-hand book market works as a library for them.

“We buy books, and we can return them and get money back once we are done reading them, or exchange a book for others.”

This is a common occurrence in the local markets where the buyers and sellers know each other.

“Yes, I have a steady clientele in Mumbai like this,” says Pandey. “We allow customers to buy books from us and then return or exchange after they have read those.”

READ MORE: Remembering India’s iconic bookseller

Waiting for buyers

Sandhya Y, a paediatrician from the city, found an Asterix comic book from years ago and grabbed it like a long-lost love. Her new year’s resolution is to read more, and she’s looking for more fiction.

“I went crazy and bought so much. I got some stares from onlookers and a rebuke from my mother,” she says. “The number of second-hand booksellers has certainly gone up this year, and apart from the price advantage, I’m excited by the variety of books that are available,” she added.

Although the stalls are smaller, the number of stalls taken over by second-hand sellers have increased – from four or five to around 25 this year, Kumar specifies. And all the second-hand booksellers come from outside the city. 

Yet Md Asif Ahmed of MS Book Centre from Hyderabad is worried. The sales are not picking up the way they usually do, he says.

In the past two days, he has reduced his prices significantly to attract customers. He has a vast collection of school books and references – his book racks are bulging with out-of-print atlases, grammar books by Wren and Martin that are popular with the past few generations of students, sets of Oxford dictionaries and thesauri – in good condition and priced at less than a third of their printed retail prices.

Despite this, his visitors point out that the local second-hand book market in Vijayawada doesn’t usually have such a varied and rich collection of English books – especially in the classics and current English novels. 

Asif says he has had to reduce prices significantly to attract customers [Swati Sanyal Tarafdar/Al Jazeera]
Asif says he has had to reduce prices significantly to attract customers [Swati Sanyal Tarafdar/Al Jazeera]

“More than demonetisation, I think what’s killing us are the online bookstores,” says Pandey. Over the past two to three years, the used-book businesses have faced fierce competition from online retailers, he says.

“Customers pick up a book here and compare my prices with the online ones. And if they find those cheaper than mine, they’ll buy from there. They discount the efforts we take to collect and manage our repertoire,” he says, despite the fact that the used-book sellers present “an advantage – that of exclusivity”.

“Here in my stall you will find many books that are not available in any other shop – online or offline,” says Pandey.

This is why, unlike business in shops the rest of the year, the book fairs are usually successful. People came looking for exclusive books. This year at the book fair, however, he says he is “seeing a total lack of enthusiasm – probably due to demonetisation”.  

The market and its value

India’s book market is valued at 261 billion rupees ($4bn) according to a December 2015 survey by AC Nielsen in conjunction with the Association of Publishers in India and the Federation of Indian Publishers. This makes it the sixth-largest book market in the world and the second-largest in English books. The survey further predicted that the Indian book market would touch 739 billion rupees ($11bn) by 2020.

But being in the industry in India is still risky business for publishers.

Kumar, the joint secretary of the festival, explains that India’s “publishing industry is good and strong”, but that they receive very little support in terms of government funding.

“Most publishers are surviving out of sheer passion and grit,” agrees K Lakshmaiya, general manager of Prajasakti Book House, a prominent publisher in the Andhra Pradesh publishing industry, and the vice president of the Vijayawada Book Festival. 

None of these publishers, however, consider the second-hand book market as a fitting competitor or an entity that eats into their business.

“The demand for second-hand books will be there, and we are not worried,” says Ravi Kumar. 

Yet, it is difficult to estimate the size and value of the sector, as it is usually accounted together with other second-hand and recycled consumer products, including automobile and industrial raw material, machinery and textbooks.

Meanwhile, Sandhya seems to have found a gem.

The second-hand book world is intriguing its customers with a fair dose of nostalgia – buyers are looking for books they read when they were younger – ones they want to share with their children and grandchildren. Sadly, those are not readily available any more.

“It’s like digging for treasure,” says one 60-year-old grandmother as she pulls out a worn-out copy of a collection of Russian folktales from a cardboard box with a note in red bold print – One for 20 rupees, three for 50. 

Several major cities in India hold book fairs during the winter months – between mid-December and February – organised by the regional guild of publishers to attract book lovers from around the city. The fairs run for a little less than two weeks and are extremely popular. Buyers get a chance to meet and interact with their favourite writers and also get some fantastic deals buying books.

Source: Al Jazeera