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.
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 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.