Over 200 used-book sellers make their living on Avenue Road, wares stacked on loose platforms, protected only by tarpaulin. Thousands of students, many of them poor, have bought textbooks here and gone on to make better lives for themselves. But these book sellers persevere in poverty, struggling to educate their own offspring. S. Mohan has been on the job for 30 years and despite the challenges, tells Denzil Rithesh D'Souza that there's nothing else in the world he would rather do...
“I am not educated but I can tell you how to pass the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) examination in few basic steps.” S. Mohan is a used books seller, working on Avenue Road and it’s safe to say, he knows his stuff. “NCERT books from grades 6 to 12, Science and General Studies by Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Ltd (TMH)-Part 1 and 2, Manorama for current affairs...” He rattles off the titles of textbooks without a pause, saying, “With these, I bet you will crack any IAS exam.” In the 30 years that he has done this job, he says, “I have lost count of the number of students who have bought these books, at very modest prices, and reached their goals.” Even policemen come by – Mohan says he also happens to be the one-stop vendor for Forensic Medicine materials. He has all the textbooks students are likely to need and what’s more, he can name the best ones and their authors.
Ask him about what students need and he exudes confidence, standing before his humble set up on the two-km stretch of Avenue Road where used book sellers crowd the pavements. His own shop stands beside another leading bookstore – Subhas Stores Books Corner. A prospective customer comes by, looking for computer-related books. Mohan doesn’t waste a moment. “What do you want, sir? Java, VB, Oracle, C, C++?” Sadly enough, Mohan was interrupted by a sudden shower of rain and lost a customer as he rushed to protect his precious books. His shop is nameless and doesn’t have a roof or any sort of enclosure. A tarpaulin sheet makes its appearance in wet weather, covering over 500 books stacked on a platform loosely made of bricks and wooden logs. Everyday is a struggle for survival, more so in the monsoon.
‘Only divine intervention can protect my stocks’
“Even short showers on a regular basis are as good as floods to us,” says Mohan. There are over 250 pavement booksellers eking out a living here. “This is our business, it’s what we know. But we can’t afford a godown, or even spare a corner in our own homes, which barely accommodate our families and a few basic necessities.” In the evenings, they leave their books behind, under the tarpaulin sheet which does little to protect them from nimble-fingered passers-by. “In the mornings, we see if the books have made it through the night. If they are all intact, good. If not, we have to wait for students to come by and sell us more,” he says. They are no stranger to theft – Mohan has arrived on occasion to find his stocks partially, or even fully stolen. And the last people to whom the aggrieved book sellers can turn are the police. “The stocks were safer before 1996, when we were allowed to set up our stalls inside the compound of Mysore Bank opposite,” he says. “After we were evicted, the footpath is the only place we have left. No government has taken our business seriously, although our lives depend on it.”
Charity for poor students, sacrifice for poorer vendors
Life has never been a bed of roses but despite the odds, many of these book sellers possess a generous heart. The used books at purchased at 50 percent of the actual price and then re-sold at 70 percent of the cost. The profits earned vary from marginal to good, depending on the season. The start of the academic year is their busiest time, usually. “The turnover can be Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 during the season and nil otherwise. We clear such leftover stocks on weekends with offers of up to Rs 20 to Rs 50 per book.” That’s not all. Many of the students who come to Mohan are poor themselves and seek massive discounts. “Our prime customers come from financial backgrounds where saving every pie counts. I get many such cases. On one occasion, a seemingly brilliant boy came looking for a GATE book, which I had priced at Rs 925. He bargained for long, until I realised he really couldn’t afford it. I gave him the book at `250. He was moved and promised to give me Rs 50 more on his next book. I offered him a buy back at Rs 200.” Hundreds of lives have been touched by the innocuous, nameless book-sellers. It’s both tragedy and irony, then, that they continue to struggle to educate their own children.
Semester system and online purchase ruining business
Up until 15 years ago, pavement book sellers did roaring business. Computer books were in great demand, “People wanted academic materials on Lotus, MS-DOS, Wordstar, Excel, C, C++, Java...” But textbooks began to be updated each year and the semester system was put in place. “The syllabus changed with each semester and we were unable to get sufficient stocks of new books. With no more takers, we sold outdated textbooks at throwaway prices in the scrap market,” says Mohan. Avenue Road remained the main destination for ICSE and CBSE school books, but schools started selling them on their premises. “Students also started sharing textbooks,” Mohan laments. “Earlier, they came for exam guides but now, even those are available at school and college counters. Books being available online has made matters even worse.”
Big shop v/s footpath shop
Mohan says, provided the availability, the pavement book shops are still better compared to big establishments. “Big shops, at the most, provide 20 percent discount on books and no buy back. We can sell a book worth `400 at `150 and offer a buy-back,” Mohan explains.
Rain or sunshine, book business is always mine
Even after three decades of struggle and insecurity, Mohan, now 50-years-old, promptly opens for business at 10.30 am, even on weekends. No matter what happens, he says, this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life. He is about to continue with his tale when a potential customer arrives and the melancholy is replaced by a high-energy pitch: “What can I give you, boss? B.A., B.Sc, B Com, MBBS, M Sc, Biochemistry, Astronomy, Embryology, Psychology, Forensic Medicines, Anatomy, Gynaecology, History, Geography......Sudhakar Rao, Tulajappa, Desikacahar, Srinivas Rao, Ranganath.. Best price here.........”