Heard of Southex Books and Prints? Chances are you haven’t. Tucked away in a lane in South Extension Part II, it is one of the few surviving - and perhaps Delhi’s only — full-fledged antiquarian bookshops of the country.
Step into Southex — a city secret known only to rare book collectors, bibliophiles and foreign tourists — and you are transported into a world of books that were written, printed and bound between the 16th and 19th centuries. These are books for which one has to pay anything between a few thousand rupees to several lakhs.
Its wooden bookshelves, running along the walls and rising from the floor to ceiling, contain about 4,000 rare books. Big, ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, antique lamps, vintage station clocks, old chests and cabinets add to its old world charm.
Started by GC Jain, 78, the shop is now run by his sons Rajiv Jain 53, and Sanjiv Jain, 50.
Rajiv Jain regrets that dealers of rare books themselves have become a rare breed due to lack of awareness.
“Unlike in cities such as New York and London, which have a large number of dealers who sell rare books, there is not much appreciation of antiquarian books in India. We mostly sell to institutions, industrialists, tourists, embassies and collectors. Today, there are only about 50 serious antiquarian book collectors in India; most of them are based in Delhi and Mumbai,” said Rajiv.
The Jains source books from collectors, antiquarian books dealers and auction houses in both India and abroad.
The Jains say, a lot of rare books available in India once belonged to zamindars and royal families.
“During the British Raj, all zamindars and royal families built personal libraries to impress the British. Many publishers in England thrived on orders from Indian royal families. After independence, a lot of these books found their way to footpaths. I have seen roadside vendors using pages of rare books to make wrappers,” said GC Jain.
Till the 1960s, he said, it was quite easy to find antiquarian books in India. But the situation changed after that. “No efforts have been made to preserve rare books. Some of our well-known libraries are nothing but graveyards of books,” said GC Jain, an electrical engineer who got into the antiquarian book trade in 1967 in Kolkata and later shifted to Delhi in 1984.
He loves his life amid the rare books and personally cleans them every week with immense pleasure and a sense of possession.
The bookstore has several sections devoted to various categories of books: first editions, limited editions, signed limited editions, plate books, art books, travelogues, etc.
Then there are sections devoted to lithographs, prints and photographs from the early 18th to 19th century by European artists in India, such as Solvyns, Daniell and Fraser.
The shop is also a treasure trove of letters by Florence Nightingale, Somerset Maugham and Rabindranath Tagore.
Of the shop’s 1,000 first editions, over a 100 are signed first editions and signed limited first editions including those of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (1894); E M Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1936), DH Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy (1930) and the two-volume Olympia Press edition of Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov.
The oldest in the collection is “A discovery of the sect of Banians” by Henry Lord published in 1630 - a book that talks about the Parsi community.
The prices range from a few thousand rupees to several lakhs — the Jungle Book is priced at Rs. 1.5 lakh while RN Grindlay’s ‘Scenery, costumes, architecture chiefly on the Western side of India’, which was published in 1826, is priced at Rs. 20 lakh.
“We follow international norms of pricing antiquarian books. The prices depend on the rarity and overall condition of the books; most are in pristine condition,” claimed Rajiv.
What does it take to be a good antiquarian book dealer? “A good antiquarian book dealer should be the right blend of a businessman and bibliophile. He should understand both the price and the value of a book,” he said.
The Jains love the process of discovery of antiquarian books. Kolkata and Shimla, Rajiv said, were the best places to find them.
But the Internet has changed the way the family hunts for books these days. “Earlier, we depended on our human contacts — a chain of small and big dealers across the world. But the Internet has made it easy for us,” he said.
But has the Internet not made rare books less valuable by making them so easily available online?
“No because there are only a certain number of antiquarian books in circulation in the world today. There is a difference between rare and old books,” he said.
Most of his clients in Delhi are top-notch doctors, IT professionals, top advocates and industrialists. “Recently I sold a signed Rudyard Kipling, a limited edition copy of his verses, to a top doctor for `2.5 lakh,” Rajiv said, adding antiquarian books had emerged as an investment option for many people.