A couple of days ago, I heard an unconfirmed rumour (which is journalist speak for 'I was chatting with a friend and she happened to mention it') that the pavement book sellers around Fountain in Bombay have been shut down, because pavement selling is illegal (right, and they finally figured this out after some 200 years, did they?)
This is really depressing news. Of all the places in all the cities in my entire worthless life that I have ever bought books (and that's a fairly large number - I don't consider myself to have visited a place unless I've bought a book there) those squalid little pavement booksellers have to be my absolute favourite. It's not just that the books are incredibly cheap (average cost for me usually works out to about Rs. 30 - about USD 0.6 - and this is despite the fact that I never haggle; or, as my I-banker friends would say, negotiate) it's also that the place is a treasure-trove of exciting finds. My own acquisitions from there include a collection of little known essays by Kierkegaard, a 1950 something edition of Maurois' Ariel, the collected poems of Crabbe, Pascal's Pensees, a selection of Cervantes' short works, three Solzhenitsyns and Sartre's complete Roads to Liberty trilogy. Plus there's something incredibly visceral about the experience of shopping there - something that I desperately miss in the Amazon / Campusi world. A large part of the experience of buying a good book is finding it - poking about for hours in piles of dusty volumes, crouched on an uncomfortable pavement, people brushing past you and then pulling out, say, a battered, dog-eared edition of Archibald MacLeish's selected poems and holding it in your grubby hands and feeling the glow of discovery spreading through you - the book is yours because you found it, rescued it, proved yourself worthy. This is how gold-prospectors must feel when they find their first few nuggets.
The other thing that's always amazed me about these pavement sellers, is the way they've managed, despite being barely literate, to perfect the art of 'People who read this book also read'*. So there you have this scruffy looking guy who is almost certainly a middle-school drop-out and can barely spell his name; but the minute you pull out a copy of Camus's plays, he will immediately pull aside a few books here, a stack there, and suddenly you'll be staring at a whole shelf of Sartre, Dostoyevsky, Becket. It never ceases to amaze me.
There's also a warmth in used books that you can't find in new ones - the scent of yellow nostalgia, the sense of belonging. Reading a book that someone else has loved and cared for (you can tell by how well preserved the book is, by the ocassional carefully thought out note in the margins) is to be connected to them in some mysterious yet friendly way. There's a feeling of awe in those faded pages and a sense of brotherhood: the idea that the whole world may be just one great library of Man.
Anyway, here's hoping that the closure is just temporary and that the pavement sellers will return soon. That way, when I die, my books will have a place to go.
P.S. On the other hand, if they are being shut down, does anyone know how I can get hold of their entire inventory?
* There are pavement sellers elsewhere in the world, of course - there are even a few in the heart of Manhattan - but none of them combine the essential poverty of the Bombay sellers with that sense of interest and reverence for the books themselves. It's ironic that at the end of the day, the true guardians of books in our time should be those who've never read them because they can't afford to learn to read.