Hitler Nadar’s name does no justice to his personality. A seller of second-hand books in Mumbai, Nadar has managed to cultivate an outsized customer base through his tiny kiosk in Matunga, thanks in part to his affable and good-humoured nature.

Nadar, 51, has been in this business for 25 years, a calling he discovered by chance. The search for a better life brought him from his small village in Tamil Nadu to the bustling metropolis close to three decades ago. “I was initially planning to do something related to the plastic industry, but that didn’t appeal to me too much,” he told Scroll.in. “At that time, the Matunga King’s Circle was full of second-hand booksellers so I thought, why not try this out?”

Nadar started out by selling books from the pavement and over the years upgraded to a small kiosk. The early days were hard. “I had no knowledge of books,” he said. “I had studied in the Tamil medium, I barely knew any English or Hindi. I started off at a small level. I got in touch with scrap dealers and gradually learnt the ropes. On my second day, I found 19 Tintin comics at a raddiwala [scrap dealer]. I sold the lot for Rs 200! I had no idea what it was worth. But the person who bought those books is still a regular, like a family friend. Gradually I found other such regular clients – ardent readers, comic book collectors – and this was the charm in this business.”

That he is the namesake of German dictator Adolf Hitler – he surmises that his father heard the name somewhere and was not familiar with the associated baggage – has also helped him draw curious customers and brought him media attention.

Nadar was one of four second-hand booksellers who exhibited their collection at a recent, somewhat unusual, book fair in Mumbai. Conceptualised and organised by the book recommendation website What Are You Reading Today, Twice Told (July 19 to July 22) was held at CoWrks in Worli’s Century Mills. For four days, one floor of the co-working space was transformed into a home for eclectic book collections, where old magazines shared space with latest bestsellers and works of popular fiction stood shoulder-to-shoulder with titles out of the literary canon. The event organisers included The Curious Reader, an online literary magazine, and Swapbook, a community of readers. Alongside the book fair, literary-themed events including workshops and storytelling performances were held to draw in more visitors.

Image courtesy Twice Told.

Twice Told is in its second year and its aim is to provide refuge to small second-hand booksellers during Mumbai’s rains, when sales are down and storage is a major challenge. The four participants registered about Rs 1.75 lakh in sales. “Many of these sellers don’t have actual physical stalls,” said Mansi Dhanraj Shetty, the founder of What Are you Reading Today. “They sell off the footpath or send you a WhatsApp message when they have new titles. They have godowns in areas that are inappropriate for storage during the rains. So that’s why we wanted to give them a safe space.”

This year, the event extended this haven to translated works from remote corners of India and countries across the world, through the collections of Niyogi Books and Seagull Books. A sixth stall was set up for Share A Book India, a foundation dedicated to setting up libraries in Indian schools. “We have grown as readers and as people over the last year. I started working last year with the Indian Novels Collective and got interested in translations and realised that these stories are getting buried,” said Shetty. “Given where our country is going, in terms of the lack of empathy at every level, we wanted to do this – to let people understand another person’s point of view. That’s where translations come in, showing different perspectives from different parts of the country and the world and get people to open up their minds.”

Another publisher, Aadivani, which is dedicated to Adivasi literature, was scheduled to participate in the event, but its collection could not reach the organisers in time. To make up for the delay, the organisers continued to operate the stalls of Seagull and Aadivani for a few days after the event ended.

The seed for Twice Told was sown when Shetty and her fellow bookworms found that the rains were preventing them from getting their regular fix of literature from second-hand-books seller Mohammad Afzal Ansari, better known as Afzal Bhai, another favourite among Mumbai’s reading community. “The main impetus for doing this last year was Afzal,” said Shetty. “He couldn’t get books out of his godown because of the rains. So we decided to do a pop-up fair. He was on board and we contacted other book sellers and got going.”

At Ansari’s corner at Twice Told, there was a continuous supply of visitors. As customers browsed through his collection – the titles on offer ranged from Philip Roth’s Nemesis to Terry Pratchett’s fantasy series, Francis Steegmuller’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait and John Green’s young adult hit The Fault In Our Stars – Ansari held long conversations with friends and newcomers and gave special discounts to his regular buyers.

Image courtesy Twice Told.

His love for reading made him a natural fit in the profession. “I was making some money off the share market but that didn’t require me to go to an office, so I would be home and read a lot,” he said, recalling his journey into book selling. “The share market business was down and I wanted to do something else. One day a friend of mine suggested that I should start selling books to make money. I had a lot of books, so I started off by selling those.”

Ansari, who, like Nadar used to have a roadside stall at King’s Circle, now operates from his home in Chembur. His customers message him with queries and book requests and he stores his stock in a godown near his house.

Twice Told has provided a warm shelter to Ansari over the past two monsoons, he said. “Storage is a big problem in the monsoon,” he elaborated. “Even if you take all precautions, some stock can get spoilt. Here, at least for four or five days, your books are in a completely safe environment. You also get a good crowd and can sell at good prices.”

Ansari’s literary knowledge makes him a hit among customers, but his reading tastes have changed in recent years. “I prefer non-fiction, especially the travel genre,” he said. “It’s hard to identify my favourite author but Peter Fleming and Robert Byron are two names that come to mind in travel writing.”

Ansari, like Nadar, mainly sources his books from scrap dealers. Making regular visits to local raddiwalas, the sellers sift through mountains of junk and old newspapers to find rare literature or popular novels hiding in plain sight.

Some who have deeper roots in the business, such as Vivek R Pandey, whose father also used to be in the second-hand books trade, also manage to source books from overseas.

“Large containers from the US and UK come in from Chennai and we shortlist literature works and classics from them,” said Pandey, who boasts a massive book collection of about 30,000-40,000 titles. “There are lots of small shops in Kerala, Hyderabad and other parts of India where I supply books. If something catches my eye or I know it would work well with my Mumbai clients, I bring those here.”

Pandey operates from a godown in Chembur and is a regular at book fairs across the country. Like Ansari and Nadar, he too is on the speed dial of his regular customers. His clients contact him through the year with their needs and he taps into all his sources to try and source rare titles. “With second-hand books, we can find rare prints and rare titles more easily than sellers of new books can,” he said. “For instance we have old film magazines and comics that have a high value among collectors. Then, books on philosophy and literature that are very expensive, we sell those at good rates. So when I come across a Bertrand Russell or a Carl Jung book, I know that I need to keep it [for my customers], because demands for such books are high.”

Copies of old magazines were a big draw at the event. Credit: Soumya Rao

At Pandey’s stall at Twice Told, Umberto Eco rested comfortably below EL James and old, dog-eared copies of the Illustrated Weekly magazine drew as many eyes as shiny superhero comic books. Old magazines were also the centre of attention at the stall of Dhiraj Visarya, who had his first tryst with Twice Told this year. Visarya has been in the trade for 30 years and his Ambika Paper Mart in Mahim deals in second-hand titles as well as new books, but the former has proved to be more profitable. “For three months in monsoon, business is low, but the rest of the year is okay,” he said. “I also sell books through WhatsApp across locations. I send photos to my customers and they tell me what they want, which I then ship for them. About 60%-70% of my books are sold through this.”

In recent years, however, business for small booksellers has taken a hit owing to the rise of online shopping, the growing popularity of e-books thanks to devices such as the Kindle, and the proliferation of smart phones that have left people with little time or mental energy for good old literature.

“Pehle jaise maza nahi hai books mein [It’s not as active as before],” said Ansari. “People don’t buy so much and aren’t willing to pay too much for books.”

Nadar concurred. “There are very few readers now,” he said. “In the past five years, with everyone owning smartphones, no one turns to books anymore. With the rise of the internet, people don’t feel the need to buy [hard copies of] books. Online ordering, app-based cab bookings have also made the need to go out and walk around lesser. People just get food and everything else delivered at their doorsteps.”

Pandey, however, has a more optimistic take. “In capital cities, the number of readers is reducing steadily,” he said. “But if we can survive this period, things will change, I am sure. This business [of books] can never get over or die.”

Dhiraj Visarya's stall at Twice Told. Image credit: Soumya Rao.