Last December, P Ponmariappan, an entrepreneur from Thoothukudi, rose to fame on the internet as videos of his inventive salon went viral in India.
With a wall of his salon housing over 1,500 books, Ponmariappan said that many customers who were often in the middle of a haircut or a shave, would be taken aback when media persons flocked to meet him.
“I do not think many people here are used to seeing the media in a small salon shop. It was encouraging and exciting to see that many people were looking to celebrate the habit of reading,” he says.
Ever since news of his salon- Sushilkumar Beauty Centre – became popular last year, personalities including MP MK Kanimozhi and various officials from the state government have walked in to his shop to congratulate him.
Ponmariappan who began this ‘library salon’ to encourage the youth to read more, says that the books in his library have exponentially grown and so has his clientele over time.
Where it began
Ponmariappan was eight when he was first taught the ropes of being a barber.
“My grandfather who a professional, sat me down and taught me the practice. I would often assist him,” he says.
However, running a salon was never Ponmariappan’s ambition.
A bright student, Ponmariappan wanted to do something unique and inventive. Circumstances forced him to stop studying in Class VIII to work and provide for his family, he adds.
“I worked in a shipping company and in the office of a lawyer but realised that I wanted to be my own boss. When I was working with the lawyer, he would often encourage me to read things. I vividly remember one of my first books Ithu Siragugalin Neram by Abdul Rehman. It was such a joy to read and finish. I too wanted to pass this to others,” he says.
When he finally had enough financing to begin a venture of his own in 2014, Ponmariappan says that he relied on the teachings of his grandfather and set up his salon in an area called Millerpuram.
“In other places, salons usually play the television or radio. Young people become engrossed in their phone and the elderly end up intently watching the television. There was once a time when salons were spaces of conversation and discussion of interesting thoughts. I was hoping to revive that by establishing this library,” he says.
In the beginning, Ponmariappan had only four books. When more people began picking up these books, he began replenishing his collection, he says.
He now has a substantial collection of books. He offers a discount of Rs 30 on a customer’s hair cutting bill if the customer reads 30 pages of a book and annotates their favourite lines in a notebook available at the library, he says.
“This has had many takers. Sometimes students who are regulars, talk to me about what they learn at school and college. This encourages me to keep the offer going,” he says.
Ponmariappan says that for those who prefer listening to reading, he plays interesting speeches by famous persons including writer and Sahitya Akademi Award winner S Ramakrishnan, motivational speaker Bharathy Bhaskar, and speaker Parveen Sultana.
“I love how encouraging they are. Many customers say that they feel satisfied when they leave my shop after hearing their interesting speeches,” he says.
He adds that he often encourages his clients to read aloud if they please in order to get over their fear of public speaking.
“I was often afraid to share my views and opinions in public due to my problems with confidence. To get over it, I now have a mike in the shop. If young people who come to the salon want to try their hand at public speaking, they are welcome to do so,” he says.
Ponmariappan says that since his shop reopened in August this year, after the lockdown due to Covid-19, he has been encouraging customers to wear masks and use sanitisers in his shop to spread awareness about the disease.
“There is often a misconception that Covid-19 is spreading in salon-like spaces. I am trying to dispel this rumour by showing to our customers that we sterilise all our instruments. We want to be careful for our health too,” he says.
Ponmariappan says that a few writers have come to his shop but he would love for Tamil writers B Jeyamohan and S Ramakrishnan to walk into the salon someday for a chat. He has read many of their books, he says.
“Though business has been affected, I have not stopped buying books. People are obsessed with the idea of handing down property to their children for their future. I wish to pass down my love for reading to my three children and everyone else who walks into my shop,” he says.