“Five years back a gentleman walked into my shop and asked me, ‘Do you have the works of Murakami?’ I responded promptly, ‘I have his works in over 10 languages.’ The gentleman with masked delight bought the entire collection, and on his way out turned back and said, ‘I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Haruki Murakami.’”

So recalls Deepak Dialami, owner of Jacksons Books in Paharganj. Dialami started out selling secondhand books on a patri (footpath) back in 1980 as a child to help his father pay his tuition fees.

Nearly 40 years later, he owns this rustic, compact little shop in the bustling lanes of Paharganj. There are books in dozens of languages including Hebrew, Japanese and Spanish, with the most expensive priced at just 300 rupees.

By reducing monetary constraints to the bare minimum, pre-owned books create an extraordinary platform for sharing and rejuvenating wisdom. And the nostalgia of loved experiences, the smell of aging pages, past owners’ memories inscribed along the margins, in underlines, the mark of the coffee cup or the tear drop, are pleasures exclusive to second hand books.

Jacksons Books, Paharganj

Dialami is deeply attached to his shop, and smiles with an open heart if you tell him you love reading. Every six months he gets books in various languages on auction from the embassies of those countries located in New Delhi. He also acquires them from tourists and students wanting to exchange books they have read, or from wholesalers and distributors in Daryaganj and Ansari Lane.

“Writer-focused” is what he calls his stock, as he refuses to sell commercially successful but poor writing. He has constructed a unique collection, of philosophy, spirituality, mythology, yoga, as well as more familiar fiction and nonfiction, all from the most renowned authors of the world. “If you want to buy books worth kilos and not quality,” he says, “then do me a favour and stop reading.”

A college student browsing at the shop says these books “are cheap, you can drop food on them without worrying about the stains, and they smell great. And who knows, you might stumble upon some rare copies!”

Nearby in Connaught Place, Anil Book Corner has been in business for 50 years but is now running losses. They have a unique collection of genres from painting and photography to law, with many books up for rent, resale or exchange.

Vinod Kumar Tiwari, the current owner, despairs about the dwindling customers. “Some are regulars who have been buying our books for decades, but the youth doesn’t come here very often. People just cross by our shop as if oblivious of its existence.”

Anil Book Corner, Connaught Place

In contrast to these stationary shops, Umesh Kumar runs a mobile stall. He calls it a scooter-display stall, which travels to different institutions selling used books of self-help, motivational biographies, poetry, fiction and Hindi literature.

The idea he says is to encourage young people to read and enhance their wit. His vision for the scooter-display stall is to reach out to the youth in rural areas and donate them these books for free. “I couldn’t get a proper education but I read books to learn. If I could gain knowledge from books after being an illiterate, why not others?”

The bookshop owners have a common complaint: Kindle devices and the digital space has lopsided their business. It has suffered tremendously as hardly anyone comes to buy books anymore. Sometimes they go without earnings for six months straight.

With a sense of concern Dialami says, “Books cannot bond with this technology. To feel the might of the ink you need to touch the words on paper, or else one absorbs nothing, and leaves with an empty mind.”

Deepak Dialami, owner of Jacksons Books

Photographs: Sreyansi Singh