A 36-year old private library in Mangaluru is entering its final chapter. The Standard Library, once one of the most popular destinations for avid readers with over 17,000 books, will close after December 31, following an acute problem of dipping readership along with soaring maintenance costs.
For its 70-year old bibliophile owner Victor Alvares, it was dream venture to have his own library. "Even as I used to work at an auto-shop back in the early 70s, I loved to read anything that interested me. I was a member of city's first library, Popular Library (now closed), run by Late Lawrence Mascarenhas since 1970 at Hampankatta in the city and spend hours reading. At the same time I was simply amazed that one could make a living by lending books," he says.
In a chance conversation with Abraham Soans, the owner of Hamsons library, Victor realised that the former wanted to sell his 10-year old business, along with the books and memberships. "I felt this was destiny calling, to pursue something that interested me a lot. My offer to purchase was met with positive outcome and I became the new owner of the library, which then I renamed it as 'Standard Library,'" he says.
While prior to the takeover there were about 200 books and few hundred members, over time, Victor says he increased the collection to over 17,000 books, including fiction, non-fiction and comics and close to 1,200 readers -- but those figures only accounted for the registered numbers, he notes. "We actually have more books and people than the registered numbers, but it is just that we don't take account of newspapers and magazines. Whereas the membership is transferable, so based on one card the family and friends can procure books. Also, when a member leaves we allot his number to the new member, so we don't have an exact log of how many readers have been with us over the years," he says.
Though initially a borrower was charged 10% of the actual cost of the book, as the price of the book rose, the renting charge was standardised to Rs. 25 for 1 week, alongside refundable deposit of Rs. 400 for newer and costlier books.
About 15 years ago, people would beeline to the lending counter and books cases at the Standard Library, so much so that there was hardly any room to sit. Despite the existence of government libraries that were offering books for free, the private libraries stayed relevant because they regularly updated their collections with new popular book releases.
However, it eventually became apparent that the library’s readership was dwindling.
"Now barely we see one person each day. There are times when I am all by myself in the library," he says.
Engrossed by technology, both young and old readers are less enthused by books nowadays, he notes. "People have television, computer, smart phones, tabs which have taken over people's interest. There are no longer serious readers, only to pass their time, people sometimes flick the pages of the book I have seen," he says.
And it isn’t just the Standard that’s been affected. Several other libraries have shut down in Mangaluru over time, mostly citing economic reasons.
Since mid-2000’s, private libraries like Popular (Hampankatta), Nandan, New Era Library have succumbed to the online and Kindle readership era one after the other. The few survivors that remain, like Accolades Library, admit that they have adopted alternative routes to sustain their business. "We have supplemented our business by conducting classes on public speaking, where we encourage people to read books and improve their vocabulary and command over the language," proprietor of Accolades Library, Krishnaprasad Adappa said. He adds that in today’s world, only government libraries and those attached to organisations may survive given the steady flow of funds for books and staff maintenance.
On the other hand, co-owner of Readers Delight Wilma Fernandes says that despite the digital transition, people do come back to reading. "It’s just the matter of going through market research and getting the relevant books on your desk. We have sustained despite the changing time and though the readership is not like the earlier times, we still hope to continue," she says.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the mounting bills to maintain the library, Victor is set on closing its doors after December 31.
"I have already started selling secondhand books to buyers or souvenir collectors. In couple of months I plan to dispose the entire lot. Post this I plan to take on travelling," he says.
Story by Story Infinity (Subs and Scribes Media Ventures LLP.)