ON A TYPICAL WORKING DAY, 77-year-old SA Govindaraju can be found at the solitary desk in his shop, surrounded by overflowing shelves and the faint scent of aging paper and binding glue, reading something to refresh his memory of it, or organising some clippings in a file. Govindaraju is the proprietor of an unassuming establishment tucked away on 2nd Cross Street in RA Puram, Chennai, between a lawyer’s office and a temple. His shop, known simply as Rare Books, houses books, magazines, clippings, illustrations, posters and photographs—a haphazard collection gathered over more than 50 years.
Govindaraju began his collection by picking up Penguin paperbacks as a 23-year-old, a time when he was also starting out in his then primary career as a lawyer. “When I initially started collecting books, there was a small shop near the Mylapore clock tower where I would always find something interesting,” he recounted. “I found The Imperial Gazette of India there, lying around among second-hand college textbooks and novels. Finding a copy of it in Chennai now is impossible.”
Govindaraju’s hoarding instinct soon spilled over into other objects as well: in addition to 5,000 books, his shop now has 10,000 assorted clippings of advertisements, comics, illustrations and photographs. Among the variety of material preserved in his files are intricate drawings of temples by Tamil magazine artist Silpi, an original copy of the magazine Harijan from 1940 and, reaching even further into the past, a hard-bound copy of Harper’s from 1879. He also proudly showed off a tram ticket, measuring five inches by one inch, with a list of stops on the borders for the conductor to punch holes through, from the days when Madras had a tram service. “The city was quiet and cozy then,” he said. “Travelling was a leisurely activity then and no one was in a hurry.” Now writers stop by the shop to research the city’s past so that they can recreate it in their stories, while filmmakers seek out images to inspire their sets.