A life amid rare books – The Hindu.

Bibliophiles in India will know how truly rare it is to find a rare books shop in this country. I was thrilled beyond words and, when I had finished slavering over the books (restored and shelved with impeccable care), exclaimed that I just had to write about his marvellous antiquarian bookshop, which was two rooms on the terrace of his house in Basavanagudi. With equal intensity, he forbade me to write about him or his East-West Bookshop. He was content, he said, with a customer base drawn from word-of-mouth. “I don’t like too many people coming here,” he added.

…………..I should clarify here that the stock I speak of was not choc-a-bloc with rarities or first editions or even anything like very scarce or expensive editions. Its uniqueness and charm lay in being well-preserved old editions; some genuinely antiquarian, many out of print, all gathered fetchingly in one room. A room full of gilt-edged antiquarian book spines is something to behold. And then there is the smell of leather and fine paper ageing, and the delicate feel of tissue guards over illustrations. Rao managed to make every copy on his shelf desirable and valuable by simply presenting them with antiquarian flair, wrapping them in Mylar sleeves or clear acetate plastic. All of it has gone now, thanks to a quiet deal he made with a longstanding customer, knowing the end was near. Several book dealers made discreet inquiries about the fate of the East-West stock, and were told by the family that the books along with the shelves had been sold en bloc. They are, one hopes, with a collector now and perhaps will be well cared for.

A naturally fine and witty raconteur, Rao could regale you with fantastic and wonderful stories about second-hand booksellers and the used book trade. Mostly self-taught (though more than once he acknowledged Murthy of Select Bookshop as mentoring him in the trade), Madhava Rao had a genius for recognising an interesting edition, spotting uncommon editions, pursuing them relentlessly and then, if the copy required it, restoring it so you, his customer, could hold in your hand an antiquarian edition whose condition was more than just acceptable.

Rao was known for being a skilled restorer of crumbling books. ……….One tiny shelf, in particular in that tiny room, held much fascination for me: it housed literature, mostly late 19th century and early 20th century editions of English and European authors.

Here, on Rao’s little shelf, to my astonishment, were several rows of antiquarian editions in fairly desirable condition. As the antiquarian market mantra goes, ‘Condition is not all, it is everything.’ Among other things, I found an 1894 Gulliver’s Travels , an 1889 Three Men and a Boat , a deluxe 1912 Pilgrim’s Progress , and a 1905 Essays of Elia . I remember my bibliophile friend found a beautiful edition of The Second Jungle Book , a snake embossed in gold on the cover.

His colleagues and customers knew that he began buying interesting, uncommon editions and hoarding them for himself and, only later in the late 1990s, turned from book collector to bookseller. It was also well known that, even as a struggling book dealer, he always kept a low profile, though no one could really say why. Some speculate he had private reasons for not advertising the bookshop.

Knowing the obsessive intensity and passion with which he conducted all his book transactions — from buying, restoring, and selling and coming back for more fervent buying (he book-hunted in every corner of the city, ferrying his loot back in an auto) — I think it was just so he could be left alone to study and play with his antiquarian loot: to savour, enjoy, and take in an edition’s bibliographical qualities, to work his magic on broken copies with those hands, and only after such bibliophilic ritual and intimacy, offer them up to fellow antiquarians for their contemplation, pleasure and possession.