Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 11/1/06 1:34 PM

Feature: The Eloor Lending Library

Trove of Tomes

The Eloor lending library’s bank of books has ensured that Chennai will never be at a loss for words of the printed kind. 

“If my DVD player works fine, and I have my Eloor membership, its going to be a happy old age for me,” says a scriptwriter for Tamil films, of this popular book-nook. Or as an Army wife put it, “Joining the local Eloor library is as important for me as finding a maid in a new town.”

If a good library is one that inspires loyalty in the collective breast of its members, then Eloor goes one better, it inspires pure passion. This is where the bookish go for their fix, to feed an addiction that only others similarly bookish will understand. Arguably the best private library chain in India, this is where you’ll find them all- thrillers, best-sellers, classics and biographies, as well as works on eco-conservation, self-help books and magazines that cut a broad range of interests.

The media keeps assuring us that The Age of the Reader is back. Well, at Eloor, it never did go away. Inside the 12-year-old library, to misquote Eliot, “people come and go, scanning the shelves for Michelangelo.” They load their arms and occasionally smile with quiet triumph as the eye falls
upon a long-tracked book.

Luiz John, the spirit behind the Eloor chain, understands bookworms. This retired passport officer with a passon for books, (“books are a visceral need in me”) started the library more as a labour of love than a business venture. The first Eloor opened in Ernakulam in 1979, followed by Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata. Now, John has added Delhi to his map.

The Chennai Eloor, the first branch to be computerised, is situated in bustling T. Nagar, with rows and rows of volumes, 66,000 at last count and growing, neatly shelved according to authors’ first name. New titles are marked up on a whiteboard and the staff are extremely helpful, even if it means hunting down hoary old copies.

Altogether, it’s a serious book business inside, serious enough to warm the cockles of any readers’ heart. Membership fees are extremely reasonable and rentals are 10 per cent of the cost of the book being borrowed, paid up front at the time of borrowing.

Eloor’s only revenue is the reading fee; the fact that it has thrived all these years is a telling statement on how people feel about books.

Eloor’s members everywhere are a varied lot with more than a fair sprinkling of celebrities among them. Which is how you could well find yourself rubbing shoulders with a reputed director, actor, author or artist. The in-house behaviour is, of course, not to gawk.

Ask Luiz John if the reader is a waning breed and he is emphatic in his rebuttal. “One great thing about any branch of Eloor is the quality of the people it draws. In addition to a shred obsession for reading, many members have other worthy passions too, like the love of music. The language skills of the average Eloor member are very high, thanks to their constant consorting with words.”

Also, as John has observed over the years, “the heaviest borrowing is done by members who come with their families. It is enchanting to see a family of three closely knit generations coming in as a group, then quickly dissolving at the entrance and flowing to different sections.” Tamilians seem to be more religious than people of other states, he adds, because spiritual and religious books are popular in the Chennai branch.

Public libraries, alas, continue to be the repository of more dust than words, and Eloor is the answer for those who wouldn’t like to put down money on a book unless they are sure of its content.

And so, going to Eloor means entering the hushed interiors of the library, respecting that hush, keeping your cell phone off, skimming the shelves, head bent at an impossible angle, fingers doing a drumroll on the spines of the tomes.

Finally, you locate the General’s tales on Kargil and pounce on it. Or alternatively, you keep scouring the inner shelves for Arthur Koestler or Amartya Sen. Something on business strategies or a particular branch of philosophy. Or cooking. Of course, you’ll find it here.

Because Eloor delivers soul food to every kind of reader. John, appropriately, has the last word. “Books will endure,” he says, simply. And so, it’s back to T.S. Eliot, “Let us go then, you and I…”

This ran in the SIMPLY CHENNAI supplement of INDIA TODAY in Nov 2006.

Sadly, the Chennai branch of Eloor closed down some years ago, as did the Delhi branch. The Bangalore, Kochi and  Thiruvananthapuram branches are going strong however. 

Related Links:

Books: Is India Reading?

Feature: On Books and Bangalore


Eloor lending libraryFeatureFeatureslibrary

Sheila Kumar • November 1, 2006

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