A magical world of books | Sunday Observer

A magical world of books

20 September, 2020
An array of bookshops along  D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha
An array of bookshops along D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha

September is considered a literary month in Sri Lanka. Authors are awarded, volumes of new books published and mega book exhibitions organised to celebrate the month. The ten-day long Colombo International Book Fair at the BMICH opened on September 18. However, this year, the book fair is held under strict health regulations due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the good old days, the Gamini Theatre Hall in Maradana was a popular spot among filmgoers in the Colombo city. But today, it’s no more. Instead the area is popular among bookworms in the city - the Gamini Hall bookshops, comprising a cluster of second hand bookshops located at D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha, Colombo 10.

Avid reader

As an avid reader I frequent these bookshops whenever I have the time. On the eve of the literary month, I visited these old second hand bookshops at D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha in Maradana with my constant companion, the Nikon camera to photograph the daily life of these booksellers. As I photographed, customers kept walking in and out of the shops and the shopkeepers always greeted them cheerfully and catered to their needs.

A bookshop owner peruses a pictorial book

I have been visiting these bookshops since 1980 and have found rare books and magazines. These booksellers make their livelihood by selling old books and lending novels to the reading public. We must appreciate their service to the reading community which is fast diminishing from the present society.

Unlike the large crowd who flock to mega bookshops in the city, a different group of readers step into these bookshops, looking for the best English novels or rare historic books.

Instead of buying a new novel at a popular bookstore in the city, the same novel can be purchased at these bookshops at a very much lower price. The lending facilities are another feature of these bookshops.

You can get the novel you want by paying a few rupees and return the book after reading within a few days. One can borrow any best-seller novels at these bookstores.

In fact, these bookshop owners have quite a long history, beginning in the British era. The Britons who occupied the island way back in the past left their books in Sri Lanka when they went back home.

These books were bought by Tamil vendors (Nadar) who sold them to the affluent living in Walauwas and temples around the country. In the course of selling these books, they bought various Sinhala, English and literary books and periodicals from them.

This activity was keenly observed by W.M.P. Premadasa who hailed from Matara. He decided to start buying and selling old books under one roof and began this business on the pavement opposite the Maradana Railway Station. It turned out to be quite a profitable business which catered to readers in all walks of life in their chosen fields.

Premadasa had collected rare and valuable books and periodicals from the affluent in Colombo 7 and the suburbs and started this novel business which was popularized in 1960. Some of his friends, having learned the second-hand book business from Premadasa, opened a few book stalls near Premadasa’s bookshop. Thus it became a popular venue among book lovers in the city.

Initially, there had been around 10 bookshops in the premises. Many book-lovers regardless of age, or class were attracted to this magical world of books, a place of serenity for the bookworms. Besides, they had the opportunity to buy the books they loved at a nominal price.

In 1976 the then government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike moved the bookstores to D R Wijewardene Mawatha due to the inauguration of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit during that year.

From that day to the present day, these second-hand bookstores have remained in their current premises wedged among the giant trees at D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha, helping book lovers to quench their thirst for reading.

As there is a row of shops that cater to the same market, we thought the competition would be fierce. These shop owners, however, said they don’t regard the other shops as a threat to them. In fact, if they didn’t have a particular book that a customer needed, they would recommend one of the other shops to the buyer.

At these bookstores, reputed lawyers, doctors and engineers buy rare, valuable books on their fields which are not available in modern bookstores in the city.

At one of the bookshops, I came across a rare book named “The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka”, published in 1986. To buy such rare and fascinating books, you have to step into the second-hand bookshops at Gamini Hall which is the one and only place in the city.

Convenient location

However, these bookshop owners at Gamini Hall are alarmed to hear the news that their cherished bookshops will be demolished due to the beautifying of the city around the Lotus Tower Project near D.R.Wijewardene Mawatha.

The current location is convenient for the bookstore owners and for their customers too, as they can park their vehicles by the side of the shops. This is something invaluable for these bookstore owners, because finding parking space in the city is a big hassle for drivers.

Many of these stores are inherited from past owners, and the present owners wish to continue with this business.

They have been in this field for two generations and have seen customers growing up and entering adulthood. Their passion for reading and interest in books is visible when they speak about the world of literature.

The charm of the place remains intact but bookstores are moving ahead with the times, at least in terms of having an online presence. Having an online presence is a necessity. I was told that one bookstore had online facilities and Facebook account for its customers.

The authorities, however, need to focus attention on these second-hand bookshops at D.R.Wijewardene Mawatha, and give them more facilities and a tranquil space to those who help quench the thirst of the bookworms.

Over 60 years old, these booksellers give a rare service to the reading community and to the literati in the country.