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Drowning in Books at the Chowrasta Market


Some treasures in Penang are so concealed, and in such odd locations, that it seems as if they never want to be found.  One such place is the Chowrasta Second-Hand Bookshop.

Amidst the hustle and bustle on the street of the Chowrasta Market*, a rundown building stands on one city block, housing the open-air meat market on the ground floor.  Yes, it's foul, wet, noisy, and unwelcoming.  Up until the early 80's, the first floor was also a wet market with fresh fish, live chickens, buckets of prawns, and whatever else you can imagine.  But as the market declined, the first floor was "cleaned up" and transformed from a meat market into a clothing market.  If you can hold your nose and avoid walking in the puddles on the ground floor, you will be welcomed on the first floor by dozens of clothing stalls that force you to duck under shirts hanging in the hallway.  If you make your way to the back, because you are not scared of the dark, you will find yourself surrounded by books.

Thousands upon thousands of books of anything and everything.  Stacked from floor to ceiling, and one breath away from toppling over onto you.  When you dig yourself through one pile, you will find another pile waiting behind it.  There are a few second-hand bookshops hidden here, but the last one in the back, run by a man named Iskandar, is the largest...and messiest. 

Iskandar is a one man show, who seems to have a photographic memory.  Without any sort of organizational system, he is your only reference to finding a book.  It might be difficult to believe his memory, but if you move one book secretly, he will walk by a few minutes later and move it back.  

What makes this shop so fascinating are the treasures that you can find.  Before moving to its current location, this bookshop was located in a shophouse on Macalister Road, where the business opened during the British colonial era.  It is impossible to know how long they have held certain books, but one can imagine, blowing the dust off some of them, that Iskandar never bothered to have a sale to clear his inventory.

If you tell Iskandar that you like old books, he will open the grubbiest stall you have ever seen where you are free to trip over heaps of hundred year old books covered in cobwebs, dust, and the occasional mosquito waiting to bite you.  All the old books go for about US$1 or $2 each, but I'm sure the value on the market is much more.  When people in Penang clear attics from shophouses, colonial mansions, and school storerooms, all the books land up in this obscure shop.  If you're willing to dig, get your hands dirty, you never know what you will find.
Part of the fun in reading old books is finding interesting stamps, signatures, and scribbles within the pages
The Chowrasta Second-Hand Bookshops are located on the first floor of the meat-market building on Lebuh Tamil (Street), off Jalan Penang (Road).  Iskandar's shop is open every day from 11:30am-5:00pm. 

*The Chowrasta market is one of the oldest, and most famous morning wet markets in Penang.  Located in the center of George Town, it is a fascinating, must-see place for visitors to the island.  We will feature the market in a future post. 

13 comments:

Christina Schweighofer said...

Great post, Reese. We'll make sure to stop by this second hand book store when we visit Penang. I'd love to hear the shop owner's voice, how he talks about his treasures, the stories he has to relate. Hope he'll be there for many more years!

debi said...

Reese,

What a treasure! Thank you for the fun tour of Chowrasta Second-Hand Bookshop.

debi

Reese said...

Debi & Christina,

Glad that you enjoyed the tour! I can see you both spending hours there since you are books lovers:)

Reese

Lissa said...

Are those 2nd hand book stores at Macalister Road still around?

Reese said...

Hi Lissa,

Unfortunately, the old bookshops on Macalister Road have shifted out and moved to Chowrasta Market. Most of the other secondhand bookshops in George Town can be found along Chulia Street.

Thanks for question,

Mark

kylee said...

It is still there!!! oh my!

Reese said...

Hi Kylee,

Still there, and based on how many books are piled up, the store will be there for a long time to come...

Reese said...

Hi Kylee,

Still there, and based on how many books are piled up, the store will be there for a long time to come...

kylee said...

It is still there!!! oh my!

Xin Ying Lai said...

hi...
do u have any secondhand campbell (biology) and raymond chang (chemistry) reference book?

seasonwithspice said...

Hi Xin Ying - you can ask the owner when you visit the bookstore. He might carry the reference books that you're looking for.

Yafieda Jamil said...

Wow, I could definitely picture myself drowning in this bookshop!

Sqimc said...

Great! I am visiting Penang this weekend. Will drop by tomorrow after my customary char kwey teow lunch at Ah Leng's at the corner of Jalan Dato Keramat and Jalan Dunlop (formerly of Lorong Kulit and prior to that - of Kimberley Lane fame).