He was tired of being an IT guy and of kick-starting software companies (July Systems). She had given up advertising agency jobs and had got jaded about advising people on insurance products.
For their little daughter's sake, they were moving out of their six-year-old home – a standard Bangalore beauty in a quiet, ageing Koramangala neighbourhood – and into a lively apartment. They wouldn’t sell this home, nor rent it out, but how to keep it alive and going?
That’s how they set up a book-and-bake venture, Spell Foods & Leisure Entertainment.
In March, Subodh Shankar and Lalitha Lakshmi had their desi-looking boutique Indian language bookstore going, in the same old home that has been refurbished with earthy Athangudi floor tiles, mud bricks and using up all its original stark wood.
Atta Galatta typically has no boundaries. Five tall silver oaks in a snaking clinch with creepers sway gracefully in the front. Inside, on the second floor it houses 10,000 affordable paperbacks and 8,500 titles in Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi as well as English books of Indian authors. The homely native mud-brick based architecture draws you in.
Every now and then the place comes alive with an origami workshop, a Hindi poetry reading, theatre sessions, art and dance evenings. Soon it could be book birthdays.
A network with 25-30 publishers/distributors ensures a 35-40 per cent margin on book sales. Participants of workshops pay a small fee but get a gift coupon for Rs 150 each so that they come back and buy a book. Soon, to supplement that, Subodh’s bakery will start supplying specially baked fresh bread and biscuits on the ground floor. That should go well with filter coffee the way Lakshmi’s mother makes it.
The brand name figures: ‘Atta’ is both the Kannada play and the Hindi flour or dough; the clamour for our own kind of books brings in all the Galatta.
“You need to consume books in all ways – read, hear, see and enact books,” Subodh says. “The business of a bookstore, the way books need to be promoted, should be re-visited. Today bookstores have almost died and morphed into gift shops. Sub-commerce has changed the fun of being with books.” The Shankars’ modest desire is to have two or three ‘Atta Galattas’ across Bangalore in the next three years.
Each event brings a different set of people, Atta Galatta is the hub for inter-related areas. “That’s what we built it for, to bring people to the book store through eclectic events,” says Lakshmi. A Nandita Bose book launch of her 2011 release; Hindi poetry attended by 68 young people, 18 of them poets.
Malayalam's internationally acclaimed writer K. Satchidanandan has sat through a session. Celebrated Kannada short story writer and lyricist Jayanth Kaikini is a regular here. Soon it would be the turn of Telugu’s star writer Yendamuri Veerendranath.
Atta Galatta has also hosted Shankar Jagannathan, English non-fiction writer from Bangalore, Telugu feminist author ‘Volga’ Lalita Popuri and Tamil novelist and film-maker Indumathi from Chennai.
“Our investment has been mainly on the ambience,” Subodh says. “In Bangalore, it is really rent and real estate cost that are killing the numerous old bookstores.” They expect to break even in 18-24 months. The large yellow-red tiled balcony could have been just as grandfather left it. The events are held on the first floor with its homely ambience and wooden chairs. On the second floor, you can just browse and browse, and may be buy a copy.
“We don't want to be imposing, or distract you from books, there are no footfalls being counted.” Footfalls there were on that June afternoon: R.K. Narayan’s literary minded daughter-in-law was picking up a few copies. Here you got art, culture, bread and bonhomie: that’s also the Shankars’ sutra for mind, body, soul and some dough.