You are greeted with the smell of worn out paper and the sight of a mountain of books. Perched on top of this mountain is 66-year-old Mary, the bookseller who cannot read.

This is the second-hand bookstore at the corner of Luz, near Nageswara Park. It was started in 1960 by Alwar, now 95 years old with a long, flowing beard. Mary joined him 15 years later and has been running the store single-handedly since 2010, on account of Alwar’s declining health.

Though the shop doesn’t have an address, Mary still receives couriers. And though she doesn’t know how to read, she digs out all the books her customers need – from 5th standard texts to engineering guides, law to Chartered Accountancy, test banks to crack IIT’s entrance exam, the GMAT and GRE to comics and classics.

“I am telling you Jeffrey Archer is not there!” She snaps at a customer who doggedly tries to sift through her mountain of books. She says that it becomes difficult to find books if people keep shuffling through them. She has become distrustful of her customers because even those who ‘look decent’ have stolen many of her precious books.

“Regular patrons who used to visit and buy a few classics every day are now long dead,” says Mary. “Now the demand is for comics, novels, school books and engineering books.”

As shop assistants demand a steep Rs 500 a day, Mary has found other ways of running her bookstore. When a couple of youngsters arrive from Sholinganallur to purchase engineering books, she gets other customers to help her search for the books they’re looking for and assigns everyone here a task.

And there’s no bargaining with her. Once the books are found. Mary debars all haggling. “Not one rupee less than Rs 300!” she asserts, tucking away the amount into the folds of her saree. The students try in vain to strike a reasonable deal but she stands firm, “No deals. These are expensive and I am giving them away.” Mary has a tough time but her keen sense as a bookseller ensures that she sells books worth Rs 500-2,000 every day. “But on rainy days and bad days, I might only manage to sell books worth Rs 100,” she adds. When the books get drenched in the rains, she has to wait for the sun to dry them out after she lays them down on the road’s median. It is said that no book can be judged by its cover. But Mary’s business acumen is stuff for a bestseller.

(Varun worked at Infosys for three years before joining the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. He is now training in the New Media stream.)

(This article was published on March 17, 2013)
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