This Thoothukudi barber Pon Mariappan maintains a mini library inside his salon in that boasts of a collection of 900 books in Tamil and English
Inch by inch, Pon Mariappan’s salon in Millerpuram is getting cramped. Not just customers fill up his 10X10 sq.ft.shop. Nor do newspapers, magazines, television set, posters of cricket and cinema stars or an overkill of cosmetic kits clutter the tiny space. Instead, you will be surprised to find the unlikeliest item in a barber’s shop — heaps of books!
He has put up a shelf that can hold 250 books. The rest remain piled up in corners, balance on a stool like Jenga blocks, peep out from top of a cupboard or kept inside cartons. But the 39 year-old shop owner is not complaining. This is the dream, Pon Mariappan says, he nurtured ever since he dropped out of school in class 8 because his father could not afford his education.
"I always wanted to study more to be able to do something different," he says. While destiny willed it otherwise, he never gave up on his dream. He worked as a loader for 18 years, saved money and set up the salon. "I believe knowledge takes you far and always wondered how to make people read," he says, “and especially inculcate the habit of reading in children.”
When he started the Suresh Beauty Centre in 2014, he saw his customers glued to their cell phones or only watching television in his shop as they waited for their turn for the hair cut.
That is when the idea struck him and one morning he removed the TV and replaced the magazines with five books. These were biographies of leaders like Periyar, Annadurai, Kalam, Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx. After few days, he noticed random customers picking up the books and flipping through the pages, some spent time to read them too. “It was enough to inspire me,” says Mariappan.
Over the next few months he built on his collection with books bought from scrap dealers, stores offering discounts and at book fairs. By 2015 end, one wall of his salon was dedicated to books on philosophy to science thrillers, fiction to folk tales, religion and mythology to moral stories and fairy tales for children.
"Whenever a customer walks in, I request them not to use their mobiles and instead pick up any book to read while waiting. In the beginning, not everybody heeded to my request but over a period, majority of them did," says Mariappan.
With his young customers he is more persuasive. When students walk in, he requests them not only to read but also write a gist of what they read. He maintains a register from December 2018 and so far, more than 300 children have put down their names with school and class, the title of the book along with the author’s name, the page numbers read and summary of what they read.
Mariappan began the new year by offering a discount of Rs.30 (on his price of Rs.80 for a hair cut) to all those who read at least 10 pages of any book sitting in his salon and also write about it. From next month he also plans to introduce open mike reading during weekends. "My idea is to make the school children read aloud and help them to conquer stage fear," he says.
Following some social media posts, Mariappan came into limelight last month for the unique salon he has been running silently for six years. Ever since he has been flooded with requests for interviews and donations of books. "I need to get another book shelf ready quickly and also make space for it inside the shop," he smiles.
More than the number of books or the titles he has accumulated, his unique initiative t o encourage his customers to read has endeared him to people. His efforts have been applauded by his favourite author S Ramakrishnan and Thoothukudi MP, Kanimozhi has contributed 50 books to his library.
Mariappan is excited about the first bunch of English books he received last week from publishing house Hatchette India. "Till now, I had only Tamil books," he says, and cites some of his favourites — the life story and works of Bharathiyar, Swami Vivekananda, Thiruvalluvar, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi and several other freedom fighters, national leaders, thinkers, scientists, philosophers.
From next month, he is planning to also lend books to college students as a trial. "I feel happy to integrate my passion with my work and make people invest their time in reading,” he says and adds, "Nothing provides a stronger pull than the experience of reading and getting lost in the world of books."
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