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When bookstores build resistance to a pandemic

Ipshita Mitra | Updated on June 29, 2020 Published on June 26, 2020

A new chapter: Bengaluru’s Champaca bookstore had temporarily shut shop before reopening on June 1   -  ABHEET SINGH ANAND

Covid-19 has shut down the pleasures of riffling through books in cosy, hole-in-the-wall stores. But these intrepid sellers are finding ways to stay fighting fit

* Popular bookstores are shutting shop or relocating to smaller markets for cheaper location costs.

*The Covid-19 pandemic has bled the bookstore business, yet some book sellers are finding creative ways to survive

Hole in the wall, packed to the gills. Elegant spaces, with jazz notes wafting through. Comfortable places where you can sit on a small stool and read an entire book. Store owners who know exactly what you want. The musty smell of old books, the heady fragrance of new arrivals. Once upon a time, visiting a bookstore meant all this — and more.

There is gloom on the bookstore front. On June 7, a popular book shop called Full Circle, in Delhi, announced that it was shifting out of the vibrant Khan Market area and moving to a smaller market. The lockdown implemented countrywide to contain the Covid-19 pandemic had bled its business, it said.

The shutdown has been hard on booksellers around the country. With the Capital and a few other parts of the country opening up gradually as part of what has been called Unlock 1.0, here’s a roundup of the challenges, old and new, faced by bookstores across cities.

Books vs real estate

One of the problems bookstores face is that of real estate. Market spots are expensive, and brick-and-mortar stores have been crushed ever since online retail began offering heavy discounts, and downloads became a way of life. And then came Covid-19, which has kept book lovers indoors and away from markets in recent months.

Yet, bookstores are doing what they can to lure the customer.

On June 5, Midland Book Shop in Delhi organised its first book-signing event with authors Ira Mukhoty and Pavan K Varma. The signed copies were mostly home-delivered while a few readers queued up for the signing, adhering to social distancing norms. Chains such as Oxford Bookstore are also organising online events. CEO Swagat Sengupta says, “In the last two-and-a-half months, we have connected our readers with their favourite Indian and international authors, performers, sportspersons and artists via the virtual space.”

May Day Bookstore and Café, owned and managed by the New Delhi-based publishing house LeftWord Books, has been focusing on generating online orders by posting free book excerpts on its website. Additionally, it engages with readers through Instagram and Facebook Lives — a recent one being a session on Che Guevara to mark the late Argentine revolutionary’s birth anniversary. Since the store owns the premises, rent is not a worry.

LeftWord Books managing editor Sudhanva Deshpande, however, is confident that physical bookshops will survive in the long run. But the closure of Full Circle, he holds, underlines a chronic ailment.

“In Indian cities, real estate prices and rents are unnaturally bloated,” he says.

Passion between the covers

If the reader is passionate about books, so also is many a bookstore owner. Take the book café called Pagdandi (Hindi for a kutcha path), for instance. Amid the spiralling Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra, the quaint and offbeat store located in the hills of Baner continues to engage with book lovers.

Hand-picked stacks: Pagdandi, in the hills of Baner in Maharashtra, sees itself as a labour of book love   -  IMAGE COURTESY PAGDANDI

 

Neha Tiwari, formerly a media professional, and Vishal Pipraiya, a former IT manager, co-founded the library-cum-café in 2012. Within two years, Pagdandi landed a mention in travel guide Lonely Planet’s list of ‘things to do’ in Pune. Describing how they’ve managed to keep the store running during this difficult time, Pipraiya says, “Initially, getting more stocks from distributors and publishers was tough due to restrictions on transport. Slowly, we started delivering through Dunzo [a delivery service] within the city, till courier companies opened.”

Tiwari believes an enterprise such as theirs cannot be sustained without the passion for it. “No profit-loving person will go for an independent bookstore. Passion is the only driving force and we hand-pick books for our readers. During this lockdown, we’ve had online poetry and reading sessions. The monthly meet of our Urdu poetry group Majlis has shifted to the virtual space. This has opened a new avenue and people from other places such as Nagpur, Nashik are joining us online,” Tiwari says.

Displaced but not dejected

Walking BookFairs came into being in 2014. Two years later, Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray embarked on a road trip covering 10,000-plus km, across 20 states, in their mini-van (a second-hand ambulance, actually). Their mission: To take books to those corners of India that do not have easy access to the written word. The lockdown has now put the brakes on the travelling library. Their physical bookstores — one each in Bhubaneswar and Bengaluru — have been hit, too.

Mishra points out that small, independent bookstores have always suffered, with or without the pandemic. “The struggles of a street bookseller in Odisha and that of the owner of Full Circle Bookstore or Bahrisons in Delhi are not the same,” she says, recalling the times their travelling store was forcefully displaced or asked to shut shop in the past. They have had run-ins with the police and were stopped by army personnel during their drive through Naxal-affected areas in Chhattisgarh. “The smaller your business, the more vulnerable you are,” Mishra adds.

During the lockdown, their Bengaluru store continued to take orders and deliver all over India. “We have been sending books through India Post, and local delivery services such as Swiggy and Dunzo. We have also delivered books personally,” she says.

Gift of book joy

A notice posted on Kolkata-based Seagull Books’ website brought cheer to the city’s legion of bibliophiles. Seagull’s physical and online stores are now open, it said. “If you’re in Calcutta, feel free to drop by at our Bhawanipur store between 11am and 5pm (Monday to Saturday) to browse our recent and classic titles,” the welcome note said.

Naveen Kishore, the publisher of Seagull Books, shares practical wisdom for these testing times. “The romance of the book as an essential commodity for the mind is a fine thought. But it is human to stay safe in these times. Bookstores have no choice but to stay closed. The shut stores are attempting to sell books that are already on their shelves. They are not in a position to replenish stocks easily during lockdown,” he says.

Seagull has carried on both as a publisher and bookseller for 38 years. “(During the lockdown), we gave away free books in a PDF format because we wanted to continue to share books. Not as a strategy but as a gift,” Kishore says.

The Bibliophilia Café in Panbazar, Guwahati, is also offering free e-books. The book café opened on January 1 this year and was doing well until the lockdown brought it to a standstill, says its founder Imran Hussain.

“We have a collection of over 12,000 books. Many of our regular readers contacted us during the lockdown, saying how much they missed reading books in our café. So we started providing them with free e-books. Almost 300 people contacted us for e-books,” Hussain says.

‘Green’ zone for book lovers

While bookstores in the metropolitan centres are cautiously taking baby steps towards resuming operations, Goa seems slightly better placed. Diviya Kapur, proprietor of Literati Bookshop in Gaura Vaddo, off the Candolim-Calangute stretch, says the state’s once ‘green zone’ status — namely, zero Covid-19 cases — meant that its bookstores reopened from May 5. Some opened as early as April 28, and saw walk-in customers.

But the spike in Covid-19 cases — including the state’s first novel coronavirus-related death on June 22 — has her worried. “With cases rising sharply in Goa and all over India, we will have to see the impact,” she says. Literati, meanwhile, continues to have online meetings for its book club and offers book curations too.

Open sesame

On March 19, Champaca Bookstore, Library and Café — a small space tucked away on a quiet Bengaluru road, far from any high street — chose to close temporarily. “It was very confusing at the time, since we didn’t know what the correct action could be: Stay open for pick-ups, or sit tight and wait it out. But we had to pay our staff, even as our bank balance diminished every day. We did think about closing and selling books online or from my house, if it came to that! It is certainly much harder for an individual independent bookstore to take on the challenge of a lockdown on its own steam,” Radhika Timbadia, founder of the year-old women-run bookstore in the Vasanth Nagar neighbourhood, says.

During the temporary shut down until June 1, the store moved online and launched a new subscription programme. A parcel of hand-picked books will reach your mailbox once a month, along with other goodies such as a curation note, postcards and bookmarks, free access to author events, exclusive discounts and more. “We share recommendations frequently,” adds Timbadia. For instance, this year the focus is on translations.

Since 1994, Tara Books has been a name to reckon with as an independent publisher of illustrated and handmade books for children and adults. “Book Building, our space in Chennai, is very special — we have a bookstore, an art gallery and extraordinary architecture. We hold workshops, events and exhibitions. To close it abruptly, with no end in sight, has been a huge blow to us,” says its founder and publisher, Gita Wolf. The extended lockdowns in Chennai are a big worry, too. “We were trying to keep our enterprise afloat through website sales, only to have the courier service discontinued again. It’s very disheartening, and we can only hope that there is a concrete plan in place for how businesses can continue, while observing the necessary precautions.”

The Odyssey chain of bookstores in Chennai and Coimbatore is focusing on web sales, too. “We really didn’t focus much on a strong web presence because we just could not match heavy discounting by online retailers,” director S Ashwin says.“Now, as online retail is not allowed to deliver in Chennai, we have revamped our website and started promoting our books through our Facebook and Instagram pages,” he says. A dedicated WhatsApp number deals with customer needs. “We send them a payment link and door-to-door delivery is done,” adds Ashwin, who is in talks with the landlords for rental waivers or reduction.

Hussain of The Bibliophilia Café believes that in this crisis, book buying is not a priority. “People are struggling to make ends meet; buying books is secondary. So, I feel reclaiming [our] space in this time would be a myth,” he says with a resigned shrug.

Future tense

How are bookstores going to sustain themselves when there are hardly any footfalls, let alone purchases? Conceding the plunging revenues under the lockdown, Kishore of Seagull Books advises patience to ride out the storm and “reboot when allowed”. Bookstores the world over need to constantly reinvent themselves to attract customers, he says.

Asked how independent bookstores can secure their future in India, Kapur of Literati says many have banded together as the Independent Bookshops Association of India (IBAI) to collectively find ways to support the sector and each other.

“In France, bookshops are considered cultural entities and there are government policies to help sustain them,” she says, hoping for a similar support structure in India.

When Covid-19 eases, bookstore owners will still have to contend with online purchases and downloads. Deshpande of May Day Café believes that no amount of online buying can entirely replace the pleasure of browsing and discovering books in a physical store.

“But that’s in the long run — and as [the British economist John Maynard] Keynes famously quipped, in the long run we are all dead,” he says.

Ipshita Mitra is Editor, TERI Press, New Delhi

Published on June 26, 2020
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