Used book shops Colombo

Used book shops all over the world have a familiar powerful gravitational pull. Like a black hole but more concrete and perceptually stronger. I’ve stepped into too many of them “for a few minutes” to come out hours later. Very disorientating – and missed too many buses (and appointments) – but what treasures I have found. I think the root of this pull originates from the time I spent sniffing around for comics along the “Lending Libraries” along D R Wijewardena Marwatha as a child. They are still there – the small shops starting from the intersection of D R Wijewardena Marwatha and T.B Jayah Mawatha off the Maradana junction. The location is marked in the Google Earth snapshot below.

Location of Used Book shops Colombo
Most of them (I’d say all of them) are quite literally (that’s not a pun. really), hole in the wall establishments squeezed under the shade along railway line side of D R Wijewardena Marwatha. A fragment of College Street in Kolkata but cleaner πŸ˜‰

The whole “lending library” deal used to work like this: you pay a fee for each book and take it home. When you return it, you can get part of your fee/deposit back or use it as credit to borrow another book. The idea is that you keep “borrowing” books. Essentially from the same “library”. With enough browsing you find your own favourite.

Went there for the first time as an adult a few weeks ago. It was a blazing Saturday afternoon which made the leafy shade among the shops very inviting.

That old book smell is still there (mingling with insense that fails to kill the aroma of old pages. Some of the stalls/shops are just intimidating heap of books. Others are neatly arrange labyrinths of narrow shelving. Most occupy the spectrum between the two. Check out the lables on the shelves in the shops that have them. A little eccentric at times but I suppose it must reflect the content.

The shop keepers/librarians are friendly and helpful. They invite you to browse but aren’t pushy.

In the best tradition of used (should I say pre-owned?) book establishments, they have the humanistic chaos needed to for those great find. Or interesting combination of subject: an old FORTRAN book in a pile of National Geographics.

Sadly time was pressing and so was lunch (such are the demands of growling guts). Wasn’t able to browse too deeply to borrow anything and get a sniff of the prices. Perhaps not as steep as a new book from a big name shop. No matter what the bargain is, I’ll still have to buy the time to read it.

Lastly, the Wikimapia link.


30 thoughts on “Used book shops Colombo

  1. you don’t buy them outright? That’s the best part! I spent most of my teen years scavenging Bambalapitya and Wellawatte for new additions to the bookshelf.

    It was way cheaper than buying new, for one thing and more importantly, the pavement vendors stocked obscure authors and titles, no doubt from someone’s library. Can you find Catch-22; Farenheit 451, Robert Heinlein or Dostoevsky in a bookstore in Colombo? I’m not sure you could, even today.

    You could even haggle and get a discount for buying more than a couple of books at once. Try doing that with a big name shop πŸ™‚


  2. You really need to spend time there. Take an evening off and chat with them and get to know them. Then they’ll find anything you want for you. What I really love is the shop that sell old Readers Digests @ Rs 20/- each


  3. drac: I know what you mean – when those books start to pile up and start taking up airspace. Had that problem when I was living in the 1st world. Found a solution though: sell them back πŸ˜€ to the used book shops. Use the credit to buy another book. It worked out quite well. Helped a lot when it came to moving. Of course even with the practice of non attachment there are some books I cling on to. But a bulk of them that I don’t re-read I recycle.


  4. Dili: You are quite right. Browsing is the best part about used book shops..

    Sadly I wasn’t able to hang around :(. And the place is a bit too far away for a quick chariot ride. It will require investing a few hours of a weekend. And I’m drowning in commitments right now.

    The good old days when I had the time to hop a bus in to some dark cave and browse with the shop cat on my shoulders seems so long ago…


  5. You sell your books back! Mon dieu, sacrilege! I’ve been building a mini library that used to span three continents and is currently starting to look like quite a headache/opportunity to go broke to ship for the last decade or so…I’m pretty bad at the whole non-attachment thing:)


  6. Used-book shops are the best places to find all those classics you read as a kid, that are timeless, you can still pick up and read now and remember everything you loved about it. Asterix is one of them.. The Big Brand New Places sell them for over 600 bucks! That’s a crazy price… and the books don’t have that ‘Authentic Asterix’ feel about them either. Lol, i don’t know if I’m making much sense, but maybe u know what I mean. Calvin & Hobbes is another.


  7. Ohhh man. The joys of book hunting in Colombo. My best find ever – the art of seduction, a pre-world war II guide to getting a lady out of her dainties.


  8. Have you heard of bookcrossing?? You log a particular book you can spare onto this website and then release a book into the “wild” and hope someone else will pick it up, log on to the site and note that it has been “captured”. Then hopefully after finishing it, they will re-release it into the wild.

    I registered a book and gave it to a friend and asked them to pass it on after they finished, but they are still clinging onto it!


  9. N:
    πŸ™‚ I’ve hauled so many back breaking boxes of books every time I’ve moved that non attachment was such a relief! Books tend to be the heftiest stuff to lug. Even my trimmed down stash is quite a bit of paper.

    As for shipping: check if the postal service in your area/country/ does something called “book rate” mail. When I did a transcontinental move that’s what I used. Essentially it slow sea mail. Takes a few months to get there but save quite a bit of $$ over air mail. Of course its non trackable so fingers crossed if the stuff doesn’t get lost. 😐 mine came through without a prob though.


  10. M:
    I havn’t let go of my childhood the Asterix collection – thought parents have stuffed it somewhere out of sight in the centuries I was away. (hope they havn’t given it away). Good thing you reminded me about it. ThanX πŸ˜€ Have to dig it up. And Tintin too. Same clingingyness with the Calvin & Hobbes books. Won’t unload those in a hurry πŸ™‚

    But there are so many Axterix books that escaped my paws back then I guess this would be good way of picking up some new/old ones.


  11. I:
    Thank you for the link. Think I have come accross a few books with a book crossings like stamp/writing on the cover in a cafe in Australia (though not in Sri Lanka ;).
    There is something “karmic” about releasing a good book out like that. Though you got to have a bit of the old non attachment working πŸ™‚


  12. No much Hindi stuff in Sri Lanka – or south India for that matter.
    Think you’d have a better shot with Indian books shops/ language service places in CA. Or check with the publishers of the book of the book (assuming that there are official translations in Hindi)>

    Chances are better for a pirate copy of the movie with Hindi sub titles πŸ˜‰


  13. To my knowledge used books don’t seem to be a viable business for a shop front operation in Colombo. No idea of such places in Bambalapitiya or Kolupitiya. The only place I know of for used books is the place mentioned in this post.

    I’ve spotted some small hole-in-the-wall bookshops in Pettah but never did stop to check them out.

    From what I know of the place mentioned in the post, if you rummage around and talk to the people there you’d dig something interesting.

    Sorry I can’t be of too much help 😐

    Good luck and let me know if you make some good finds.


  14. Am travelling to Colombo in the next few weeks and would love to spend an evening or afternoon browsing secondhand books hops but am now confused about where to look. Can anybody guide me please??


  15. JOE: Sadly Colombo isn’t much of a place for used books. The “lending libraries” mentioned above might be the only cluster book stalls there are. They are closed at night – and I wouldn’t advise wondering around Colombo streets on foot at night.

    Best time is mid morning when the traffic has cooled down and the stalls are open.

    Sadly Colombo isn’t much of a city for books as it used to be


  16. can anybody kindly let me know where I can buy second hand used book written by a sri lankan and its a number 1 bestseller? i missed the chance when I was in slanka in 2009 and regretted deeply. i would love to have a book or two from slanka by someone whose book was a number 1 bestseller on the list? am collecting books from different countries i visited in this category, please help! thank you.


    1. Sadly there’s not much of a thing as a “best seller” in Sri Lanka. If a print edition get solds out that’s the closest it gets. Also are you referring to books in Sinhala, Tamil or English? you might want to check out the blog of Phbooks which might give better info than me πŸ™‚


  17. all these wonderful articles about old books stores are just killing me!! xD i’ve never been to one,but i’ve always wanted to.but now my urge has just increased to a point where i really really want to visit one.and yeah just spend time gettiing dizzy over the sight of BOOKS! πŸ˜€ thanks for sharing this article,i’ll most def. try to go there soon,well have to force my parents first… πŸ™‚


    1. I wouldn’t call this blog post a list πŸ™‚ you should set up a blog or a Facebook page and put up you latest books on it πŸ™‚ Dean the Bookman of Colombo (or Colombo Bookman) has a nice ring


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