I started asking people for directions to Mylapore’s ‘Alwar kadai’ (Alwar’s shop) which was almost a kilometer away. No one said they knew nothing about it. Finally I reached the shop – also called “shop of open books”.
What greeted me was a large shack-like facility on the sidewalk, filled with numerous books and unsigned. Ammu Alwar, 42, daughter of RK Alwar, the shop’s previous owner, stood there tending to customers.
The “Open Bookstore” was founded in 1939 and still supplies at least 60 customers every day. It houses books ranging from David Baldacci’s The Camel Club and Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan to the core fundamentals of JAVA. One can see books in different languages like Tamil, English and even Sanskrit.
Small lightbulbs, some donated by customers, hang in the scale-like structure. Ammu Alwar said that her father, who died in 2018, started this shop selling used books. Alwar himself is an avid reader, she said.
Alwar, who came to town with a dream of getting into the film industry and later starred in a few films, passionately built this bookstore to earn a living. Ammu said she grew up with her sisters in the bookstore, which was bigger a few years ago. “We lived in this shop. We only moved into a house in 2002,” she says.
Ammu Alwar and her sister Julie Alwar run the shop – which they call “Saraswathy vazhum idam” (the place where the deity Saraswathy resides) – every other day.
Ammu said that since her father Alwar stayed on the sidewalk near his shop, he closed the shop at 11 p.m., took a bath at the nearby Kapaleeshwarar temple the next morning, and opened the shop at 6 a.m. He loved his bookshop that much, she added.
However, Ammu said they close the store at 6pm because it is now without electricity.
Ammu said many government officials used to buy books from her store to study. “Even today, people who are doing well in life come up to her and say they studied with books that my father sold,” she said. Alwar catered to former Tamil Nadu chief minister and Dravidian leader CN Annadurai, she added.
All books in Alwar Kadai are sold at half the original price, Ammu said. She said while they’re struggling to make ends meet, they still prioritize buying books for the store.
“As far as I know, even my father didn’t make much money from the store. Say he earns 10,000 rupees a day, he goes and buys books for 1 lakh rupees,” she said.
“We always scolded my father for not saving enough money to buy a house, but he always says that buying books is the most important thing for him. But now that my sister and I have taken over the business, we’ve also understood the love of buying books,” Ammu said.
She said that some books, even if they don’t sell right away, will be useful to someone later.
The family’s love of the store is not without its problems. “We need better protection for the business. During the rainy season, books get wet, the best we can do is pull down the tarps,” she added.