When I was 17 years old, I began the journey that would change my life: selling books. At Kirti College in Mumbai, where I was studying, there were many booksellers, and they were always mobbed by students buying textbooks to prepare for the IIT entrance examinations. Now, one particular book was heavily in demand, and very poorly available. The students who wanted it were desperate enough to pay a higher price for it. So I bought a copy for Rs 5 and sold it for Rs 11. This may seem laughable today, but let me put it this way – back in 1981, an unlimited plate of rice was available at Rs 2.

I was a boy who loved to read but couldn’t afford to buy so many books. Selling books to buy books for myself seemed a novel way of funding my reading habit. My daily expenses were only Rs 30 at the time, so if I sold even one book a day, it was enough. But then, as I grew older, I spent a few years participating in student movements.

By 1988, I returned to Mumbai – Bombay back then – and took up a job at a computer repair company as a salesman. But I tired of it within five months. Perhaps holding down a job was not the way I was supposed to live my life, so I reverted to my previous methods to earn money.

First steps

I would collect books from second-hand bookshops and sell them to my friends and acquaintances. My first client in Vashi, where I lived, was PS Nadkarni. His brother was the chief of the National Institute of Design, and he often bought books from me for his little son. That same little boy is now a judge in America.

In the early days, I used to sell five books for Rs 200 in small boxes. I started buying Agatha Christie novels at 50 paise and selling them to public libraries for anywhere between Rs 3 and Rs 8. With the more sophisticated libraries, PG Wodehouse was quite popular.

Regular customers were few and far between. At the time, there was plenty of competition among second-hand booksellers in Mumbai. But gradually, by word of mouth, my reputation began to build in the city. I met people like Manoj Kulkarni, for example, through people I didn’t know. Soon, big bookstores began contacting me to ask if they could give my number to clients who wanted a particular book which was out of print or not in stock.

It didn’t take me long to realise that there was considerable interest in second-hand books and rare books. I had nobody to teach me the distinctions between the two in those early years, so I taught myself. I had grown up reading books. Now I consciously began to read about books, their printing and their publishing.

Pricing old books

Later, the manager of the New and Secondhand Bookshop, who was a great collector of second-hand books, introduced me to the world of rare books. He explained that Indian books, especially those published before independence, could fetch good prices. He also guided me on how to price books. He had an instinctive knack for understanding the value of a book, and he passed his knowledge on to his assistants – and, luckily – to me.

Truth be told, there is a thin line between “second-hand” and “rare”, much of which is visible in the fine print. For example, the easiest way to identify a rare book – especially a coveted first edition – is its cover. Collecting rare books is not a popular habit in India. But internationally, there is a greater appreciation for rare books. It’s not an overstatement to say that for many people, rare books are an investment.

Between 2007 and 2010, several feature articles about me were published in the Mumbai Mirror and Indian Express, which changed my life completely. My phone has never stopped ringing since. I can count the who’s who of the literary world, like Adil Jussawala, Shanta Gokhale, or the late Arun Kolatkar, along with celebrities like Aamir Khan, Ashutosh Gowariker, or Sonali Kulkarni among my clients.

But I have stuck to pricing books on the basis of their value and not on a client’s status or reputation. I used to sell books from my home too, but I thought it best to rent a small office space early this year – considering the clients who were calling me and the number of books I had stored. In fact, between my office and home, there is a total of more than ten thousand books. Even the kitchen has two racks of books. I still give away hundreds of books to scrap-sellers because, honestly, they reach more readers this way than we give credit for.

A shift in strategy

However, the question was: how to continue selling while I was shifting the stocks? My friends stepped in generously at this point. I left a rack of about 400 books at a friend’s place, with an eclectic mix of international classics, as well as Urdu and Marathi books. I offered my friend a handsome commission if he could sell them to his network of friends and acquaintances. He did just that by taking photographs and sending them via email or WhatsApp to his network. This system worked well until I settled into my new office.

By now, it was already February 2020 and there were already whispers of the coronavirus in the air. But I was focused on the fact that I finally had an office which I loved, with good lighting and a charming little terrace. By March, however, I could not ignore Covid-19 anymore. The country had gone into a lockdown; regular couriers were closed for business; bookselling and book-buying had come to a grinding halt. I had to close my office temporarily.

It was a time of immense change for me. I have never written down the prices of books, nor promoted books on social media. Now, I started with a dictionary of Marathi dialect. Hundreds of songs have been written or recited by women in Malwani, one of the dialects of Maharashtra. Thousands of songs are written or performed all over the state.

Marathi scholar Sarojini Babar undertook the industrious task of compiling these songs in some 15 volumes, titled Lok Sahitya. After this project, she thought of compiling a dictionary of unique words, which are not in colloquial use in major metropolises, like Pune or Mumbai. I posted a photograph of this dictionary on Facebook. The response was immediate and tremendous.

Gratified, I decided to make use of social media during the early months of the lockdown to sell books online. I was aided in this process by comparing prices on Abe Books (a major online marketplace to buy and sell rare books), and Amazon. One day, the painter Laxman Srestha called me and said he was reading VS Naipaul’s Beyond Belief, and was looking for its prequel Among the Believers.

I was excited because this was a big commission for me, and I had the book already. I checked online and found that I possessed a copy of the first edition, which I was ready to sell for Rs 5,000. But on looking up its price on Abe Books and Amazon I was shocked to discover it was worth over Rs 46,000 rupees. Now, I never hesitate before checking prices online.

Selling rare books

I am constantly told that readership is dwindling these days. But what I have seen on the ground is different. Last year, I set up an exhibition of books at Ishan Mall located on the outskirts of Pune. My friends in the city did not visit, but people living around the area did. In four days, we sold 50 books.

The experience also gave us a sneak peek into readers and their tastes. For instance, a man working at a bank visited the stall to buy books on string theory and physics. A Kashmiri Muslim woman, who worked at an NGO, was interested in studying the Bhagavad Gita. A group of students had come from Mumbai to see the books at the exhibition.

I made a database of all the readers who visited by noting down their contact details. During the lockdown, we were able to use this list to reach out to some of the buyers. I was delighted when many of them readily ordered books. Online payment was also a big shift for me. Earlier, I had to send someone to collect payment at the time of delivery, but applications like Google Pay or PayTM were a boon during the lockdown.

In July, I re-opened my office after four months. A former assistant suggested that we could provide between 30 and 300 books to each of those who wanted to re-open their libraries. My proposal on Facebook received a massive response: Vinayak Joshi from Pandharpur bought books worth Rs 7,000, and Tejas Kulkarni bought two sets of books for Rs 10,000. This helped begin the process of paying the long-overdue rent of the shop.

We also came up with the idea of offering our very rare books as photocopies. We sold a few books this way too. Some rare books serve as important references, so I try not to sell them. I have a 150-year-old Marathi dictionary produced by Parashuram Godbole. Books that have been collecting dust on the shelves for years are now helping me pay the rent.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced me to change my style of functioning in many positive ways. The pandemic has made me realise I must adapt to an inevitably changing world. It also has, strangely, given me hope that though the world may change several times over, the love for books and reading will remain eternal.

So, life is limping back to normal for me. Some rules have changed but I think the love of books will remain unchanged, and we will continue to be in business until we want and are willing to be alert to customer demands.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.