Low-hanging chandeliers, warm yellow lighting, rare prints on shelves, books of all shapes, sizes and ages adorning the walls of the palatial room. This antiquarian bookshop resembles a maharaja's personal library. Located just off the bustling South Extension-II market in New Delhi, Southex Books and Prints has been in the business of rare prints and first edition books for over three decades.
G.C. Jain, 82, the oldest antiquarian in the family, had been a collector of rare prints back in 1982, when the family was based in Calcutta. These comprised rare pieces of art work by British and other European artists dating back to the 18th century, when printing was a laborious and expensive process. Artists would make use of techniques such as "camera obscura" to paint pictures that resembled photographs. Not more than 250 prints of a single painting would be produced.
The bookshop is in possession of many such books of prints. One of them, called Oriental Scenery by Thomas and William Daniell, first printed in the 1800s, is approximately worth Rs3 crore, while each of the 144 prints in the book has a price tag of Rs2-3 lakh. Rajiv Jain, the second-generation antiquarian in the family, says it is the most expensive book on India till date.
In 1984, the Jains moved to Delhi and diversified into books - rare travelogues, books on archaeology, natural history, architecture and literature. Today, Southex Books and Prints is home to around 15,000-20,000 books. Of these, most are first-edition copies, some are signed copies, while others are rare prints and plate books. The gamut is laudable - there is Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali, the only Nobel-prize winning book from India, signed by him, published in 1910; The Game Birds of India by the founder of the Congress party, Allan Hume, who was also an avid ornithologist; the works of Robert Melville Grindlay, founder of Grindlays Bank, who was an accomplished artist.
Recently, the bookshop sold a signed copy of Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, My Experiments with Truth - one of the 500 copies that were printed back in 1927 - to a Jaipur-based dealer for Rs3.5 lakh. The unsigned copy was auctioned for Rs3.20 lakh. "We have the finest books on India and the Indian sub-continent that money can buy," says Rajiv Jain.
A signed copy of Ulysses, by James Joyce, is up for grabs for Rs4.5-5 lakh; Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book commands a price of Rs2.5-3 lakh, while the more contemporary works (signed copies) of authors such as J.K. Rowling could cost Rs80, 000.
Back in the day, the Jains scouted for these invaluable books from Calcutta and Bombay, where rare book connoisseurs, however few in number, reside. But, In India, the weather is not naturally conducive for books to remain in pristine shape, unlike in Europe. Now, the Jains travel across the world, Europe especially, to source books from auction houses and dealers. While the Internet has helped them connect with people who may be in possession of antique books, it has seldom brought them the real deal.
A significant amount of money is spent in procuring these books, and it involves a fair amount of mathematics. "These are not ordinary books. Acquiring them is like an investment for us. So we do graph plotting. We calculate that if we invest some amount of money, what sort of returns we will get 10 years later," Jain explains. That these are fixed commodities - not being produced anymore - and can get damaged because of poor upkeep and climatic conditions make the equation complex.
This business, says Jain, is akin to investing in the stock market. "Invest and wait for the right opportunity to come in? someone who loves books, has knowledge about them and has deep pockets."
Once a book is procured, the Jains turn it into a collection or a range of books based on the subject, in order to command a premium. Apart from housing books from bygone eras, the shop offers book restoration services and hand binding services, too.
Several factors determine the price of a book. Its scarcity value, condition/wear and tear, whether it is a signed copy, and includes special hand-coloured plates, etc., are evaluated. Then, considering the average price that such books have fetched over the past 15 years - based on auctions conducted globally - a price is arrived at.
Jain is upbeat that the awareness about rare books and prints is on the rise, and so is the consumer's willingness to spend. He says a well-stocked library uplifts one's stature. "People perceive you in a different way." He strongly propagates investing in art as a "prudent" investment option. "People should invest a small portion of their corpus into books," he says, adding that those who do so can expect "50 per cent more than the inflation rate as returns". So, if the inflation is at 5 per cent, one could expect a return of 8 per cent.
The rare books trade in India is in its infancy. In the UK, considered to be the Mecca of antiquarian books, more than 6,000 people are registered in the book trade. "In India, there are not even six people in this field, full time," rues Jain.
Art galleries, government institutions (scholars looking for research material) and embassies form a big part of the bookshop's clientele. Among others who frequent the place are doctors, lawyers, dealers and businessmen with a fetish for rare books and a few lakh rupees to splurge on them. The bookshop also sees inquisitive foreign tourists visiting for a rare encounter with the times gone by.