The grown-up joy of finding secondhand children's books

It started as a hobby, as he haunted the secondhand bookshops in Mumbai looking for children's books published in the USSR. Now, he is a confirmed collector of old, rare and often used children’s books. Devadatta Rajadhyaksha explains why.

11 Mar 2016 | By PrintWeek India

Away from the swanky malls, away from the spick-and-span world of organised bookstores is the wonderfully chaotic world of secondhand bookshops.

Most of the books you get here have probably passed through several hands; only a few of them did not feel compelled to scribble or doodle on the pages. The books are usually dog-eared, and sport a thin layer of dust. You will have to check if all the pages are intact (but do not bother to ask your vendor for the dust jackets if they are missing). And do not forget to screen the telltale drilling of white ants, or the fleeting iridescent forms of silverfish.

How do these bookstores, with stack after stack of unread, wizened books waiting for the right reader, survive? A popular paperback at Rs 50 is reason enough. However, the real joy is in tracking down an out-of-print book or a rare edition from among the flotsam.

And when it happens, you forget your grimy fingers, that uncomfortable stooping posture that comes from digging in the books stacked on the floor, and other mundane stuff like that.

Instead, you attain a heady Nirvana – and you do not want the shopkeeper to find out. He is a pro and he will extract his pound of flesh if he suspects that you really want that beautiful edition of Alice in Wonderland.

I have had the privilege of exploring many such stores of used book in Mumbai. Initially, my focus was to collect children’s books published in the USSR. But how can you resist a wonderfully illustrated Dr Seuss, or a collection of animal stories from Africa?

I am not an expert. I tend to pick up books based on first impression – illustrations, binding, typeset, etc. And I have noticed, for some reason, books with unique characteristics tend to be either from distant lands or be somewhat old (1960s and earlier).

Mine is now a motley collection of history books from Publications Division (ministry of information and broadcasting), stories by Robert Louis Stevenson from Collins and other British publishers, pop-up books from Malysh Publishers in Moscow and assorted storybooks from China, Czechoslovakia, Romania… The list goes on.

The most enjoyable part in finding used books is that you visit different bookshops without any expectations. You chat up with the shopkeeper, browse through the stacks, take your time and savour the company of books. More often than not, you find something interesting. And if you do not, there is always another time when you can come back, and other places you can try.

And once the shopkeepers know you are a repeat customer, they will try and source books that you like. Once the rapport is established, the bargaining becomes a ritual without stress – you do not really mind paying a few extra bucks for a good book; and the shopkeeper does not mind reducing his profit if he sells the book to a friendly customer.

As a rule of thumb, you can get paperbacks for less than Rs 50, and hardbacks between Rs 100 to Rs 150. Any unique characteristic of a book propels the price higher – pop-up books are a case in point; you would be lucky to get one below Rs 200.

Another lesson you learn quickly is not to delay committing to a book if you really want it. The tactic of going away, showing incredulity at the quoted price, just does not work. The shopkeeper knows what price he has quoted and would not budge if you go back later for the same book. What is worse, someone else might just pick it up. In case you are not carrying enough cash, you can always pay a deposit and reserve the books you want.

Even someone like me, unaware of printing technology, can see how the books differ from each other in the way they are crafted. The simpler books with illustrations in only one or two colours jostle for space with four-colour offset prints. The lean paperbacks sporting spines with just a double staple and/or glue somehow manage to retain their form, but the hardbound books with a cloth covered spine weather the years much better. The thinner paper of early Indian books contrasts quite a bit against the thick creamy paper of British or American books. The colour illustrations on glossy paper brighten up old classic like Treasure Island. And the creative ideas used in Soviet books are rather clever – books cut in a non-rectangular shape, books that cascade out in a five-page-a-side panorama, and so on.

These children’s books, with a beauty rich and rare, are indeed a joy to behold. And as to ownership, you know you are not the first, but do you really care?


Suryavarache Ware (Marathi translation of The Sun’s Wind) by Alexei Leonov

Progress Publishers, the USSR, 1978

While growing up in the 1980s, I dreamt of becoming a cosmonaut. This stunning book was what inspired the dream. However, the copy of my childhood suffered the fate of many beloved books – I might have lent it to someone who did not return it, or I might have lost it while shifting. The sheer unadulterated joy I felt on seeing this book in a used bookshop at Dadar cannot be described. A quick purchase and an impatient journey back home – and bliss. The book is about the Apollo Soyuz Test Project by Alexei Leonov, who headed the Soviet part of the joint US-Soviet team. It also contains beautiful illustrations by the author. All in all, the book is a treasure to behold.

When Daddy was a Little Boy by Alexander Raskin

Progress Publishers, the USSR, 1979

For years, I have heard people praising this book to the skies. Finally, when I got a chance to read it, it was in Hindi. However, printed on modern paper and with assembly line binding, it did not have the feel of a Soviet-era book. Then one day, rummaging through the old copies of Reader’s Digest at a Mahim shop, I found it – a quick glance to check if all pages are intact, a bit of bargain, and I was out of the shop. This book is a collection of stories told by a father to his daughter, about his own childhood. The theme that our parents were children once – joys, sorrows, pranks, punishments and all – is a great read for grownups as well. Later, I found a Gujarati copy as well and could not resist picking that up as well, though I can barely read the script.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Collins, Great Britain. In or before 1952

We have all heard the story, read it, even watched it on TV. So, the purchase of this beautifully crafted edition was more for aesthetic reasons. And what a beauty it is! The thick paper of the book has aged gracefully; the glow of the colour picture plates is still lively after so many years. And it is lovely to know that the previous owner was a bibliophile as well. The book came with a transparent plastic cover, the previous owner’s attempt to protect it from wear and tear. And, yes, there is an inscription too: “Jean Durant wishes many happy returns of the day to Rynah, on 1/3/52.” I’m sure Rynah cherished the book for years.

How to Behave by S Marshak

Malysh Publishers, the USSR. 1979

This lovely, little book, printed on cardboard, opens up like an accordion. Novelty value aside, the book itself is delightful, with a simple story and colourful pictures. None other than Maksim Gorky hailed Marshak as ‘the founder of Russia’s children’s literature’, and the book does not disappoint.

Tales and Stories by Ion Creangă

Publisher info not available

Given the language barrier and limited cultural exchange, books from Eastern Europe are not easily available in India. Thus, finding this copy by the celebrated Romanian author Ion Creangă was a pleasant surprise. The tales are witty and humorous, and the illustrations in bold lines are very enjoyable. And when you read a saas-bahu story in a Romanian book, your belief in universal brotherhood goes up a few notches!

A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson

Purnell & Sons Limited, Great Britain

The subtitle of the book adds, “With six pop-up pictures,” and the cover proclaims, “Jolly Jump-Ups,” emblazoned in bright red. The flow of Stevenson’s poetry is as good as his prose. And each page boasts beautifully crafted pop-up pictures – in multiple layers of depth! The best part? It is a gift from the owner of a bookshop I frequent.

Into Space by V Sevastyanov

Malysh Publishers, the USSR. 1980

Malysh Publishers seem to have specialised in printing novelty books. Into Space is a beautiful pop-up book written by Vitaly Sevastyanov, cosmonaut and Twice Hero of the Soviet Union. This simple book is a great way to introduce the world of spaceships to young children. With references to Gagarin, Tereshkova, Leonov, the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, unmanned lunar rover Lunokhod and a variety of Soviet spaceships, this little book packs quite a lot of information in its nine pages.

Chick and Duckling by Vladimir Suteyev

Printed in the USSR for Pater Haddock, England, 1986

The shape of a frog sitting atop a green leaf in a pond makes this book stand out. The front and back covers sport this unique shape, but the pages in between are rectangular. The story itself is of a chick trying to imitate a duckling in every activity – be it walking, digging a hole, catching a butterfly (a rather scary picture!). Finally, the chick follows the duckling to the pond for a swim, and is about to drown (another scary picture!). The duckling saves its friend, and the book ends with the chastened chick hastening to terra firma. “Rau Nadkarni is good,” proclaims a cryptic message in purple sketch pen on one of the pages. An altogether mystical book, I reckon.

This India by Sheila Dhar

Publications Division, 1973

A front cover sporting a stylised peacock in green, red and white, flanked by flowers in the same colour scheme, on a bright yellow background makes this book very striking. You open it, and notice a message from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The book talks about the freedom struggle, and the concept of Indian-ness, five-year plans, agriculture, democracy – you get the picture. It is not a book a child would read for fun; it is a book an uncle or an aunt would gift to a niece or a nephew. However, the production value is fantastic. Thick pages with a striking orange border, lots of photos and stylised illustrations, a nice, big font and a strong binding would make this a book for a living room bookshelf.

Omnibus by Rudyard Kipling

Exeter Books, the US, 1986

You know the joke:

He: “Do you like Kipling?”

She: “I don’t know, I’ve never kippled.”

This omnibus is a compelling reason for anyone to start kippling. The Jungle BookThe Second Jungle BookJust So StoriesPuck of Pook’s HillKim – five classics in a single volume. To add to it, a front cover showing jungle animals around a crescent moon that literally glows. I recall finding this book in a shop in Pune during an evening stroll. That experience now prompts me to go for a walk in any new city I visit – sometimes to happy results.

(Devadatta Rajadhyaksha is a Mumbai-based Chartered Accountant. He is an avid reader, an impulsive book collector and a Russophile. He can be reached at