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Tale of a life well lived

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  • Peter Appuhamy, an institution on D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha, is saying goodbye after five decades of selling used books 

Text and pix by Himal Kotelawala

The quaint little secondhand bookshops lining the railway side of the D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha are hard to miss, but something that may not be immediately obvious to the casual passerby is the sheer volume of literature - and knowledge - contained within the walls of each deceptively tiny stall. One of the oldest of these, Peter’s Bookshop, contains a staggering 50,000 books, valued at over Rs. 3 million in total. And proprietor Peter Appuhamy knows exactly where each and every one of his precious tomes is located.

Appuhamy got into the used book trade in the 1960s, when he agreed to help his uncle Premadasa, a Navy veteran who had lost two of his limbs in a cylinder explosion in the 1940s, set up shop on the pavement outside the Maradana Railway station selling and renting books acquired from various distributors. Appuhamy was just 14 then.

The start 

 Tragedy struck, when his father died as he was about to sit for his A/Ls back in his hometown of Welimada, Badulla, and the 18-year-old Apphuhamy had no choice but to move to Colombo for good and join his uncle’s business permanently. 

“The British Government routinely sent him prosthetic limbs, along with a pension. I remember going to the British High Commission to pick them up,” says Appuhamy.

Not very fluent in English at the time, the highly resourceful youth wasted no time in teaching himself the language, so he knew what exactly he was selling to his customers: From pulpy crime thrillers and racy beach reads to tales of swashbuckling cowboys and Victorian classics.  

“My English wasn’t very good back then. I taught myself by poring over dictionaries and self-help books late into the night - I remember there was this Sinhala book called Abhinawa Ingreesi Guruwaraya’. Later I started reading books from the stall. I can now manage to read most of our novels, except for large, complicated ones,” he says with a grin.

Their beginnings were humble, to say the least. But luckily, Premadasa, according to his nephew, was a very enterprising man.

Bargain books 

“There were Tamil businessmen back then who used to deliver books on bicycles to rich households in Colombo for rent, at Rs. 0.25 or 0.50 a book. We thought it would be a good idea to sell and rent books from a single location, filling a niche,” says Appuhamy.

These original book delivery men would later supply Premadasa with freshly acquired books, which he would then sell at a profit.

Reading was a popular pastime in the ‘60s, says Appuhamy, but the book trade in Ceylon wasn’t the thriving industry that it is today. Apart from the handful of bookstores such as Gunasena and even Cargills, used book sellers like Premadasa got their supplies from a company called Sivagram, who Appuhamy recalls would buy “bargain books” by the pound and resell them at 75 cents or 1 rupee a piece.

“After a while, we built up a regular customer base, who would rent books from us for 25 cents a month.”

Business was booming. Premadasa Bookshop’s portfolio expanded to include highly sought-after novels and periodicals, as well as rare first editions of books on Ceylon. A few of those rare editions are still available at Peter’s Bookshop today, at prices that would make your head spin – an ancient looking edition of A Guide to the Birds of Ceylon, for example, is now going for Rs. 15,000. Appuhamy is very proud of this treasure trove of a collection.

Leading up to the Non-Aligned Summit that was held in Colombo in 1976, a majority of the shops in Maradana were relocated. In the months prior to the Summit, in 1975, Apphumay’s Uncle’s business, called the Premadasa Bookshop was moved to its current location on D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha. A few others also set up shops in the vicinity, most of whom were in the textile trade.

“Business wasn’t very good for a lot of these traders, so they eventually switched from textile to used books,” says Appuhamy.

That same year, Appuhamy tied the knot and made a decision to start his own business. With a heavy heart, he says, his uncle gave him his blessings along with a very useful trove of books.

Loyal customers 

Today, Peter’s Bookshop stands two doors away from the old Premadasa’s, which until recently was run by Premada’s son, Apphuamy’s cousin, who passed away a few years ago.

It’s testimony to Appuhamy’s business acumen that he was able to retain a loyal customer base that he had befriended while still working at his uncle’s as an apprentice.

“I had built my own customer base in Maradana. My uncle would go home at 4- 5pm, and I would stay on till 9. The customers I served during those hours stayed on with me,” he says. He is not ungrateful to his uncle, however.

“He was sad to lose me, but he was very supportive. He sent me some of his books to help me start my business.”

At 72 years of age, Appuhamy comes across as a jovial and unpretentious individual who is justifiably proud of how far he has come.

“I’m very well trained in this trade. I’ve been doing it for 50 years. I learned over the years through practice. I learned how to look up an author and find a book in seconds. I learned how to work out which authors sold best. I learned to keep records of those,” he says.

He is not without complaints, however, the lack of sanitary facilities chief on D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha among them.

“We pay a monthly rent to the municipal council here, and yet, there are no toilets or even taps here.”

Barring such logistical issues, the universe has mostly been kind to Appuhamy. His business continues to thrive, despite current economic uncertainties. His regular customer base is as big as ever, if a little stagnant.

“Back then, a five rupee profit on a book was plenty. A cup of tea was just 8 cents, a hearty meal cost no more than 90 cents. Our hobby was to go see movies. I would usually aim to go to the 9.30 screening at one of the many theatres around the Maradna area - one of which was the Gamini Hall theatre which was burnt to the ground in the ‘83 riots - even at those late hours, customers would come by and beg for books. So I would open the door and give them what they want, and they would drive us to the cinema,” recalls Appuhamy.

Changing times 

He does, acknowledge, however, that times are indeed changing. “People don’t read as much anymore. Since the advent of TV, there has been a drop of people who purchase books. Of course, the economy doesn’t help. A government servant can’t afford a book these days - nor do they have the time. Everyone’s too busy chasing money.

“It’s not all bad, though. We have enough sales to make a living. We’re happy with that.”

He is also skeptical of the impact of the internet and smartphone on book purchases. 

“I suppose it does have an impact, but I don’t think it’s that big a deal yet. The only way it really affects us is when people order books online for a lower cost,” says Appuhamy.

Peter’s Bookshop has no plans on going online. There isn’t a computer in sight. Asked if he don’t even consider maintaining a database, he shrugs, insisting that every book has a place and every book is in its place.

After five decades of hard work, Appuhamy is finally contemplating retirement. A relative of his named Pushpakumara whom he hired in the ‘80s is set to take over.

Somewhat surprisingly, his own children are not interested in taking up the family business. 

“I have three daughters, but no son to carry on the business. They’re all married and their husbands don’t really see the potential in this.

“I didn’t make millions, but I made enough money to buy myself some land and a house. That was enough for me, considering I made an honest living. I saw my daughters married off, so I’m happy, and now I just need to rest.”

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