The shelves are nearly empty. P Thiagarajan is at the far end of the library, trying to keep himself distracted amid a fast-depleting pile of books. Clearly, it is not working. He gets emotional with every passing title, and understandably so. The 1000 sq ft space filled with books sums up his life’s purpose. “ Most of the Tamil titles are gone,” says the 63-year-old. As Thiagu Book Centre, one of the oldest libraries in the city, downs its shutters due to low patronage, its founder Thiagarajan is giving away his books for massive discounts.
“A lot has changed over the years,” says Thiagarajan, recalling a time children would queue up in front of his library when he closed it for a lunch break. “They would ask me, ‘Why can’t you come sooner, uncle?’,” he laughs, adding how he eventually ended up cutting his lunch breaks short. Thiagu Book Centre was started in 1980 in a rented space near the Head Post Office.
Thiagarajan’s father Perumal Samy set it up for him, soon after the former finished college. “Father ran a petty shop selling newspapers, magazines, and candy on Stanes Mill Road in the 1960s,” recalls Thiagarajan, adding, “He later set up Excellent Book Centre, a library on VH Road and I gave him a hand on and off.” This laid the foundation for his understanding of a library’s functioning.
Thiagu Book Centre was first spread across a small room with around 20,000 titles. “We charged 25 paise to borrow a book,” says Thiagarajan. In their initial days, he agrees to being a stern librarian who hardly spoke. “This is because every librarian I encountered in school and college were that way,” he chuckles. “Imagine being entrusted with hundreds of titles and having to keep it safe from eager children.”
He eventually loosened up, gradually earning friends for a lifetime. “I had my own way of arranging titles; I did not study Library Science,” he points out, adding how he would gauge a reader’s interest by simply looking at the first book he/she pulled out from the shelves. “I would then strike a conversation and show them similar works that may interest them.”
The library moved to its present location in RS Puram in 2010. Thiagarajan is a voracious reader himself, and counts Ashokamitran among his favourite authors. Driven by his love for reading, he sourced several rare titles, knowing that someone would come looking for them. They always did. Thiagu was the first place any reader worth her salt stopped by to locate that elusive title not available elsewhere in the city.
Gradually, writers got word of the library. “Several writers such as Nanjil Nadan, S Ramakrishnan, and Rajesh Kumar have dropped by,” explains Thiagarajan.
Thanks to a growing number of friends who loved reading, Thiagarajan started the Saturday Sangamam, an informal reader’s circle at the library. “We would gather to read poems, discuss a book or politics and one of us would bring snacks,” he says. He hardly took a break, closing only on Deepavali and Pongal, and keeping the library open even during bandhs when the whole city would shut down.
But Thiagu gradually lost its charm as the internet took over books. “Readership declined after 2010,” says Thiagarajan adding that things only got worse after 2020. He finally decided to shut down, but before that, give away all his Tamil books at 30% off and English titles at 50%. Having lived surrounded by books for over four decades, he struggles to find an answer when asked, “What next?”. He shakes his head and walks away, “I have cried a lot already .”
Thiagu Book Centre’s sale is on for another week. At Captain Palanisamy Layout, Thadagam Main Road, RS Puram. For details, call 2456895.