Books Are Heritage in Colombo's Used Bookstores

Text and Photos by Thirangie Jayatilake
November 1, 2018

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STACKS OF BOOKS sit between blue shelves that reach from the ground all the way up to the ceiling, sparing not even a square inch of wall.  Around the tightly-packed shelves, piles of books rise from the floor—books flood the space. Sometimes, the book stacks block the way, leaving customers to weave their way through the crammed shop. Squeezing through, however, doesn’t seem to be a tedious task—the flood of books invite you in, waiting to envelop you with the familiar smell of old pages.

The Maradhana secondhand bookshops along Dr. Wijewardene Mawatha in Maradhana, Sri Lanka, offer a wide range of books for half the retail price, at most. Located in the center of Colombo, the secondhand bookshops stand next to each other, forming a long line of stores with books spilling onto the pavement.

The entrepreneur behind this chain of bookshops was Premadasa Weerarathna. Weerarathna fought in the Second World War as an airman for the British Colony Sri Lanka, which was then known as Ceylon, and lost an arm and a leg in the war. He supported himself with a pension for many years, until one day he noticed British citizens living in Sri Lanka throwing out books they had read. Weerarathna collected these books and opened a secondhand bookshop near the Maradhana railway station.

 
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The secondhand bookshop at the railway station no longer exists, but its legacy continues on Dr. Wijewardene Mawatha, where Premadasa’s sons and relatives have taken over the family business. With time, businessmen unrelated to Weerarathna also bought shops, and acknowledged that it was Premadasa’s work that bought them to this business. Premadasa’s photograph hangs on the wall in the shops owned by his sons and relatives.

The majority of the seven shops have been selling secondhand books for over thirty years. P.J.S Piyankara, the owner of Piyankara bookshop, has owned his store for around fifteen years. Piyankara, like many of the bookshop owners on Dr. Wijewardene Mawatha, inherited his bookstore from his father and hopes to leave it to his son, an avid reader and book collector, someday. In fact, his son, who is in his late twenties, has already opened two bookshops in two different cities.

The neighborhood surrounding the bookstores is home to shops selling spare motor parts, where one often sees blue sparks railing off metal slabs being welded. Located in the center of the city, the chain of bookstores is also surrounded by schools, textile shops, a kovil, an old cinema that has been shut down, the Maradhana railway station, and Colombo’s main railway station, the Pettah Fort Station.

 
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When asked how many books are housed in his store, Piyankara laughed. In addition to the books on the ground floor, which customers are free to walk through, there are more books in the first-floor storage. Because there isn’t enough space to keep all the books on the ground floor, the first floor houses books that Piyankara says don’t sell as often as old history books. These less-popular copies only sell when someone comes looking for them specifically, in which case Piyankara will climb upstairs and find the customer’s book. The ground floor is organized by genre: novels, high school textbooks, medical books, language books, and so forth.

Some bookshops sell old magazines. Sarath Bookshop, which neighbors Piyankara’s bookstore, is one of them. Ranjith at Sarath Bookshop has been working there for around fifteen years. The bookshops draw regular customers as well as new ones. The regular customers Priyankara and Ranjith share have been coming in for generations. Bookstore owners sometimes know up to three generations of customers. Both Priyankara and Ranjith emphasized that it is a love of books, passed down from generation to generation, that sustains the Maradhana secondhand bookshops.

In his free time, Ranjith enjoys reading textbooks, and while customers are an important part of this business, the bookshop owners and their staff play an equally important role. They are only in this business because they wholeheartedly believe in the importance of books. More importantly, they believe that the increasing popularity of E-books is not a threat to the secondhand book market—they are confident that shops like theirs will continue to thrive.

 
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New customers visit the shops because of the popularity that the Maradhana bookshops have acquired over the decades. The Maradhana bookshops are the best-known secondhand bookshops in the country, and for many, they are a treasure trove where you can find rare books that are no longer in print. At the Maradhana bookshop, one can buy several used books for the price of one new book at a regular book store. And sometimes the books have little notes written on them—annotations from previous students or readers that Priyankara claim adds to the value of the books.

Used books are donated by the public to the Maradhana bookshops, or sold to the bookshop owners for a little less than half the retail price. Customers can buy books starting at 100 Sri Lankan rupees.* The Maradhana bookshops also have a lending system where a book can be borrowed for a month for just 50 rupees. Novels are often their best sellers, and text books take second place.

The Maradhana secondhand bookshops aren’t just a business. They’re a part of a culture and a heritage of loving and respecting books, a value that is passed down from generation to generation. I remember my mother bringing home books from these stores when I was a child, and I would find books with covers that had long been replaced and stories that I never knew existed. Though some copies were a little brown and some had cracked spines, they made me wonder about their previous owners—what they felt as they read them and whether they once loved the books that were now in my possession.

Back at the Maradhana bookshops, I watch a customer leave; he sends his greetings to Priyankara’s family and claims that he will be back soon. He sends a casual nod Priyankara’s way, and walks out with the familiarity of someone who is at home. ❖

*100 Sri Lankan ruppes: 0.57 USD; 0.50 EUR

 

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