A rainy afternoon browsing through eclectic piles of old books.
The particular bouquet – must, dry dust, fading ink, a touch of mold- of long unthumbed chapters, a grand old theater crumbling in the background, and street life buzzing all around you. It’s all a little Lantin Quarter but in fact its high-street Maradana(the theatre is the Elphinstone) and arguably the best street in this rather unloved part of town- the edge of DR Wijewardene Mawatha where for over 60 years half a dozen or so vendors of second hand books have run their distinctive, decaying tome piled stores. Just stacks upon stacks of inexpensive second-hand books donated or bought (for a small fee) from those who no longer have any need of them. So the detritus of Colombo’s bookshelves largely 50’s era children’s books Hardy Boys, Famous Five, 70’s Cold war thrillers and lots and lots of text books. But hidden amongst all the trash between the pulp and frayed 90s Newsweeks there is real treasure. A good smattering of classics, and real antique gems. Children’s books with circa 1950 illustrations and various treatises on old Ceylon that people seem to throw out after the demise of their grandfathers. They also tend to have copies of the latest in popular fiction-( 50 shades of Grey anyone?) and chic-lit in abundance.
Its a bit of a lucky a dip but sift through the dusty collections for long enough ask the enthusiastic vendors enough questions and after 30 mins scouring you’re sure to find something you’d like to buy. Most of what’s on offer is priced at between Rs 100-400. However be prepared to bargain hard and push for bulk discounts – 1 book for 200, two for 300 etc.
Browsing and haggling maybe with an odd break for tea at the kadai next door is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and given that we are living through the dawn of the ebook era it’s nice to be able to walk away from an afternoons shopping clutching a little hoard of books bought for than a 1000 rs. Its satisfyingly anachronistic and also makes you think. Books(the written word on paper/papyrus/ola leaves) have been the primary means of distributing knowledge, creativity and thought since the demise of stone tablets 5000 years ago. But it looks like these crucial and much beloved stepping stones on the winding path of human development are on their way out and soon all book shops will be second hand book shops.
What exactly that will mean for Maradana’s little clutch of vendors is hard to say(perhaps they’ll thrive) but I recommend you go now before they start trying flog you 2nd hand kindles….