Anup Luiz has lately been remembering that tense afternoon from many years ago, when their family driver died in a freak accident. “He was waiting to pick up my brother from college when a tree fell on him. A large crowd started gathering at our house and my mother got scared. But my father remained cool.” He spoke to the aggressive mob with composure and assurance, until they were placated.
The way P Luiz John, founder of the iconic Eloor Libraries, defused the volatile situation encapsulated the strength of his personality. “He commanded everyone’s respect,” said Anup. Long-time employees of the library recall Luiz as a good boss, someone who never abandoned his forthrightness.
There’s a reason why 32-year-old Anup has been remembering his father so much lately. Luiz’s brainchild Eloor Libraries turned 40 in early April, and to mark the occasion, sweets were distributed to customers who walked in. For the Luizs, it was a bittersweet moment. “My father passed away 10 years ago [when he was] 59, and my elder brother Gautam, who helped my dad, passed away two years ago,” said Anup.
The past decade has been marked by a series of upheavals for Eloor Libraries – lack of business forced its branches in Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Calicut to shut down. At times, there can seem to be little reason for hope. Brick-and-mortar lending libraries across India are staring at an uncertain future – in March, the landmark Rajesh Library in Mumbai announced that it was closing. And yet, Eloor Libraries continues to have a presence in Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Bengaluru, thanks to a small, faithful fan base.
“Dad was a voracious reader,” recalled Anup, who lives in Kochi and runs the chain with his mother, Mini. “He used to cycle, at least once a week, to wherever he could get good books.”
A brilliant student, Luiz joined the civil service. But even as he shuttled between prestigious postings around India, he yearned to start a library. Finally, giving in to his passion in 1979, Luiz opened Eloor Libraries on Marine Drive in Kochi with seed money offered by a maternal uncle and around 5,000 books. That same year, he married Mini, an 18-year-old college student.
A month into their marriage, he surprised Mini by announcing his plans to quit his job to focus on the library full-time. “She was worried initially, but supported him,” said Anup. “She couriered handwritten invitation cards and to date, writes the accounts.” Six months later, Luiz repaid his uncle: he had a lifelong dislike for loans. “He wanted the library to work on a model of self-sustenance,” said Anup.
Throughout the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s, the library was a hotspot of sorts in smaller cities like Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, where civil servants, doctors, police commissioners, film stars, scriptwriters and college students would drop by regularly. Books were, and still are, painstakingly covered with protective plastic sheets. Members can rent them at 10% of the book cost, after paying a refundable deposit.
“Luiz sir wanted the library to have a copy of the latest books before they hit the market,” said 51-year-old KS Sabu, who manages the Ernakulam branch. “We still do that. We stock at least a few books from the Man Booker Prize shortlist every year. Our book collection has always been our strength and sustained us. We have 70,000 books now – it used to be more than a lakh, but we had to dispose [of the] old books.”
Sabu is a familiar face to long-time members – he has been manning the desk for 32 years. “At its peak, 200 members would walk in every day to rent new books,” he said. “We used to get 15 new members every day.” Today, that number has dwindled to five.
Gradually, branches opened across India – Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and finally Delhi in 2006. At one point, says Anup, Eloor was one of the leading private lending libraries in India.
For Mumbai-based former editor Elizabeth George, Eloor has shaped her childhood like no other. “I cannot stress this enough: I owe my reading habit to it,” said the 34-year-old, who grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. She started visiting the library as an 8-year-old and went through full-blown Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High phases. “The children’s section was huge,” she recalled. “Back then, Thiruvananthapuram didn’t have many good bookstores. Eloor Libraries gave [the] entire city access to good books.”
I grew up in Dubai and first heard about Eloor from my husband, who studied at an all-boys school in Kochi. He and his friends would discreetly exchange Tintin, Asterix and Archie comics inside the school bus as the school didn’t encourage carrying storybooks. Fearing the library’s hefty fine, they would fight over unreturned books, only to patch up over the next Hardy Boys novel. Once older, the library introduced them to international magazines like Cosmopolitan.
Its decline in the mid-2000s coincided with the rise of e-readers, online libraries and bookstores, and a predilection for mobile phones over books among children. Rents became unaffordable – so much so that Luiz broke his self-imposed rule and applied for a loan to purchase a property for the Delhi branch. “We were ready to go online in Delhi, but then my father died.”
A few years later, Luiz’s elder son Gautam and the team at Ernakulam were in the middle of computerising the branch’s system when Gautam was diagnosed with cancer. “I was not primed to take over,” said Anup, who currently juggles his responsibilities at the library and a full-time job at a travel company. “I felt anxious. I knew nothing.”
The figures were troubling. “I had to choose between the Chennai branch, which was bleeding money, or putting money into other branches,” he said. So they decided to shut the Chennai library in 2018 and slashed book prices by 50% before the closure. “The turnout was so huge, we had to lock the library from inside,” said Anup. “My auditor told me [that] if half these people had turned up before, we wouldn’t be shutting down. It was disappointing.”
Today, each branch has 10,000 to 12,000 registered members. “But only 700 to 1,000 members actually read and fewer than that read a lot,” said Anup. “I am yet to understand why readers are ready to spend on a new book but don’t want to rent a book at 10% of its cost.”
Sentiments don’t run a business, states Anup repeatedly, but he also doesn’t want to close any more branches. “The current generation does not know of Eloor Libraries, so I want to spread brand awareness,” he said. “We are participating in book fests.” He has other plans, which he discusses off the record. “I am doing my best to keep this alive but I also don’t want to run at a loss,” he said. “My mother is all I have left and I want to take care of her. But it’s also my last connection to dad. Even today, when I feel a bit down, I visit his grave and it reassures me.”
But for now, it’s time to celebrate. Anup has decided to take his staff out to celebrate the landmark occasion. “Most of them have been with us for 32 years. Maybe we will go for dinner, [and] talking about work [will be] strictly off the table.”