At Blossom’s bookshop in Bangalore last year, I decided to do a bit of digging before the three-hour ride to the airport. I was looking for Jim Corbett’s first book, a privately published 1935 edition of 100 copies called Jungle Stories, which had a few stories that would eventually be included in his first widely published book Man Eaters of Kumaon. I didn’t find the book; rather, I found a 1964 edition of the latter, and a 1957 “Panther Book of the Month” edition of Bangalore hunter Kenneth Anderson’s Nine Man Eaters and One Rogue, which advertised itself with the blurb: “There was adventure and exhilaration in tracking down the marauding killers”.
Replace “marauding killers” with “rare editions”, and the blurb could fit anyone who goes hunting for rare or first editions of books in the dusty corners of antiquarian bookstores in Daryaganj, Calcutta or Bangalore. The thrill of a “hunt” for a rare edition brings its own rewards: a smug sense of satisfaction and gloating at other folks who didn’t find the book! Of course, with a digitised world, rare book collecting has its fair share of websites where one can search for books, but it’s difficult to do so from India.
Enter Chapter 101, an eight-month-old Gurgaon bookstore that deals in first and rare editions, and is becoming the go-to place for some collectors of rare books. Although housed in a mall, the store gives you a sense of a long romance with books – a world apart from the bookstore chains. The books, mostly hardbacks, are arranged on polished wooden shelves – the warm yellow lights, the soothing jazz, and the comfortable chairs invite you to pick up a book from the shelf and sit down to read.
For Raju Singh, the founder of Chapter 101 and himself a collector of rare books, the bookstore is a lifelong dream come true. A book-romantic in the true sense of the word, the ex-banker and entrepreneur is clear that his bookstore is not a commercial venture in any sense. “Owning a bookstore had been on my mind since college, and Chapter 101 is the result of that passion,” he says.
The store is perhaps one of the few that deals in first and rare editions in the National Capital Region. A 19-volume collector’s edition of the complete works of Ernest Hemingway sits cosily beside a Salvador Dali-illustrated edition of Don Quixote. A mammoth 1860 Bible – which Singh discovered lying in dust in a second-hand Daryaganj bookshop – gives company to first editions of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. “Acquiring first editions is laborious but, if you love books, often an enjoyable exercise. I happen to travel a fair amount and spend hours scouting antiquarian bookstores,” Singh says.
Chapter 101 doesn’t just keep rare editions though. There is a carefully curated selection of literary fiction and nonfiction, the classics, poetry, and even an autographed Jethro Tull LP.
Most of the books are, however, hardbacks. When I ask him why he chose to focus on them, Singh says, “The attempt is to keep titles not easily available elsewhere, and in a format that will inspire customers to build their own private collection or a library.”
Of course, this means that the books here are priced higher than a regular bookstore. First editions have a habit of commanding much higher prices than regular editions, as with all collectibles. The First Folio by Shakespeare is worth $5.2 million, while a first edition of Pride and Prejudice can go for as high as $180,000. Even a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – which was printed with the author’s name as Joanne Rowling rather than JK Rowling – can be worth as much as $50,000. At Chapter 101, the prices don’t go as high as these, but buying the Dali-illustrated edition of Don Quixote can put you back by Rs 13,500.
“First editions, as any book collector will tell you, are the gold standard in the trade,” Singh says. His personal favourite is the signed first edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. “First editions are expensive, but for the book collector, they’re worth the value.”
At a time when bookstores are increasingly shutting shop, the simple romance of a collectible bookstore like Chapter 101 is endearing. Singh is aware of the challenges a bookstore like his will have to face, especially as digital publishing and reading on the Kindle becomes more popular. The higher prices at his store will deter the usual reader too, who would prefer to get a cheaper edition off the internet. But there is an old-world charm when Singh says, “The feel and pleasure of holding a book with perhaps scribbles and notes in your handwriting can never be replaced by technology.”
As brick-and-mortar shops increasingly come under pressure from the likes of Amazon (which has recently opened its own bookstores in the US), can bookstores like Chapter 101 survive? Of course, there is a niche audience of rare book collectors who have few other places to frequent, especially as bookstores like these can acquire particular editions that customers request. Singh is clear that his bookshop won’t go the way of a commercial bookstore. And his clinching reason for book-lovers to patronise him? “For those of us who care about books, this is the time to start making a collection of the ones we love, because it looks like there are going to be fewer [bookstores] in the future.”
All photographs by Amish Raj Mulmi.