A few years ago, Lynne Scanlon, author, blogger and literary agent otherwise known as “the wicked witch of publishing” put up an interesting post on her site “the publishing contrarian.com”, “Are hand-sellers of books as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas”?
Lynne was speaking about her experience in a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Looking for a book on the Vietnam war and not finding it on the shelves, Lynne approached the girl at the counter. The girl mentioned they did not have the book in stock at the moment but began to look it up in her system. She happily announced she could get it from another store and would keep a copy for her the following week.
Lynne told her not to bother and would pick it up from one of the other B&N stores in Manhattan later. A week later, Lynne happened to be in the vicinity of the same store and on an impulse stepped in. There was a new girl at the counter. Seeing Lynne, she beckoned her over. She said she too had been on duty on Lynne’s visit the previous week. Her colleague was on leave that day but had left a packet for her. In the packet Lynne found the book she had been looking for and on it was a sticker “For tall woman with dark tan”. The girl had not known her name but had noticed her tan. She had taken the trouble of getting the book for Lynne though asked not to bother on the off-chance Lynne may not have got it and might step into the store in the future!
It was just the girl’s enthusiasm to get a potential customer the book of her choice. She was proactive and enthusiastic about her job and did not like to see a disappointed customer. She was a true hand-seller. Lynne bemoaned that hand-sellers were as rare nowadays as the “ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas”. Commenting on Lynne’s post I had mentioned that though I had never been to Arkansas, I could vouch that hand-sellers were as rare as the Tragopan (so well described by Salim Ali) in Nagaland.
Lynne was speaking of hand-sellers in bookshops which exist in a defined space but there used to be hand-sellers of books who sometimes could not or did not have a bookshop to operate from. These were mobile hand-sellers who would drop in at your home or office unannounced with their wares.
There were sellers for various products but those selling books were a rare species. More often than not, they would be denied entry while other products may be given a cursory look-over. The values inherent in books are not immediately discernible and it requires a book-lover to discover them.
I remember my father who would have just completed a 100 years, meeting one such hand-seller of books who called on him at his office in Kolkata in the late 1950s or early ’60s. Maybe the infectious enthusiasm of the hand-seller or the intrinsic value and merit inherent in the books but the result was that the family acquired a brand new set of the multi-volume Book of Knowledge along with a set of the Gem’s Classics and three volumes of the Reader’s Digest Encyclopedic Dictionary. I always wondered why my father preferred the Book of Knowledge to the more widely known Encyclopaedia Brittanica and believe that it must have been the hand-seller who made all the difference.
Anyway, these were invaluable reading and consulting resources for both me and my two sisters in an age when we did not have either the computer or the internet. The relevant Book of Knowledge in its beige cover and rich red spine with a cellophane wrapper was very useful at the pre-university level.
I was asked by the history professor a venerable Jesuit, an eye-witness to the declaration of the Armistice signalling the end of the first world war, to write a paper on Peter the Great.
I used the Book of Knowledge to write the paper, impressing the professor so much that he asked me to read the paper before the entire class. However, my euphoria was short-lived as a colleague drily remarked, “why do so much work? Peter the Great is not in the syllabus for the forthcoming exam”. I did do very well in history though and the professor gifted me with an old copy of Stefan Zweig’s classic The World of Yesterday when the college library was disposing of its old books. This copy is with me today.
Upamanyu Chatterji in his book English August mentions the protagonist Agastya Sen serving as an apprentice to a publisher in Daryaganj, Delhi. While driving past the showrooms of Macmillan India and Oxford University Press, Sen wonders who on earth would ever read the dry, ponderous academic tomes nestling on the shelves of the display windows? Actually, the showroom of the OUP in Daryaganj was a very lively and interactive place till recently.
Most educationists and academics would make their selections at the showroom. It had a comfortable ambiance for browsing too. Teachers, senior bureaucrats and research scholars would visit regularly. I would generally be alerted by the showroom staff when senior academics like Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, Andre Beteille or Upendra Baxi, all of them OUP authors would visit.
They would brave the parking problems on the ever busy Ansari Road to savour the pleasures of some fine books. Romila would often grumble about meeting me in the showroom. With my hand-selling skills, I would always tempt her to buy more thus exceeding a budget she had set for herself. Upen Baxi went even one better. He would buzz me on the intercom to give me a pleasant surprise. A visit that I would always cherish was that of professor Chandrasekhar from Hyderabad, who later became vice-chancellor of the Andhra Pradesh Open University. He would come to Delhi to attend meetings of the University Grants Commission and in the evenings, come to the showroom. He spent all his allowance for meetings at the UGC on books. I was thrilled when I was able to show him Samuel Finer’s The History of Government from the Earliest Times ( 3 volumes) published by the OUP. It was a classic and he didn’t have it. He was so happy and we also discussed Samuel’s brother Herman Finer’s book The Theory and Practice of Modern Government in two volumes, alas not published by the OUP. This too was a classic and a little more known in India.
One of the reasons for the footfalls in the showroom was that it had a wide range of titles on display, not only that of the Indian branch but also from Oxford and New York.
The hand-selling ability was put to test in an interesting way. We decided to launch Yash Ghai’s The Political Economy of Law in the showroom. Yash was teaching law at Warwick and came down for the launch. We managed to persuade the eminent lawyer Soli Sorabjee to launch the book.
As we were expecting a good turnout, we decided we would have a reception with cocktails and snacks. My accounts officer who was not favourably inclined towards “spirits” of any kind felt we were exceeding the budgeted figure. I reassured him and said we would recover the money spent.
He was skeptical and felt surely we would not be able to sell that many copies of Yash’s book but kept his doubts to himself. The launch was a great success and while the drinks were doing the rounds, I took Soli, an avowed jazz fan, to the section where we had a selection of books on jazz. These were published by OUP, New York and all due to the diligence of an editor who was passionate about jazz. Needless to say,
Soli made a fine selection from the books and pressed me for a good discount. I was happy to oblige as New York had given us generous terms. The books were sent to Soli the next day and our trade staff brought back the cheque. We had more than recovered the cost of the party! My accounts officer was suitably thrilled and inquired anxiously about the next launch!