Frontlist | Locked down but not out: Bookstores that lived through the COVID-19 pandemic

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Iconic brick and mortar bookstores across India have overcome a difficult year and have shown that perseverance always wins the day.

The year 2020 was a difficult time for most small family-run businesses. Bookstores were no exception. Many had to succumb to the times and shut shop. But some persevered. Stacked floor to ceiling with books, these stores are a far cry from the franchisee-led Crosswords and Oxfords of the world. At these family-run places, patrons easily build a personal rapport with the owners and staff members over cups of tea and discussions on their favourite authors.

There is no pressure to buy. One can browse at one’s pace and simply walk out without buying, and return again and again without anyone judging them. Isn’t this what booklovers ultimately dream of? For many such bookstores, digitisation and social media turned out to be the much-needed light at the end of a very dark pandemic tunnel.

Besides taking to platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp, subscriptions, e-books and interesting pricing strategies also got them brownie points. So, will these independent bookstores manage to always win the David versus Goliath battle? While no one knows the future, the owners maintain unanimously that the future of bookshops will depend on how much the patrons really want them.

Pagdandi – Pune

When the lockdown struck, Neha and Vishal Pipariya of the Pune store started with an innovative gift voucher campaign. Patrons could buy the voucher and redeem it sometime in the future. This helped them handle overhead costs for a brief period during the lockdown.

“It is difficult financially. For us as well as our patrons. To be honest, we can’t compete with online stores that offer massive discounts. What we can count on is the overall experience. In the eight years of our operation, it is the emotional bond that we have formed with our customers that has kept us going. And this is what keeps us going,” they say. “We are still in the survival mode. We are still just managing to hang in there,” Vishal added.

What makes them tick

  • The fact that there is no giving up
  • It’s not just about books, but rather about the entire experience

Faqir Chand and Sons – Delhi

Abhnav Bamhi, the fourth generation owner of this bookstore that was established in 1951, says, “When things started looking bleak during the lockdown, our patrons reached out to us.”

The store started couriering books to some customers who asked for it. Also, social media helped them stay connected with readers. The store does not have a digitised inventory.  Twenty-three-year-old Bamhi, who practically grew up at the store, says that becoming a part of the store was an organic process.

He goes on to add that the fact that people visit the store with their grandkids and proudly take them around sharing memories over a cup of tea, makes it worthwhile for him.”I could have easily gone to the US for a fancy MBA degree, but this is where my heart lies,” Abhinav adds.

What makes them tick

  • Commitment of their loyal clientele
  • Old-school atmosphere

Atta Galatta – Bengaluru

Brought to life by Subodh Sankar and his wife Lakshmi in 2012, this store limits itself to housing Indian writing in English and regional-language books. It aims to create a platform that showcases and celebrates the treasure trove of Indian writing.

After opening, the store slowly expanded its collection with recommendations from its own readers. It was like a symbiotic relationship, says Sankar, “One helping the other thrive.”

During the pandemic, the store resisted the urge to go digital because Sankar felt the very essence would be lost. “We decided to sit the pandemic out. I think for any independent bookstore, it is important to focus on the offline experience,” says the 49-year-old proprietor, adding that it is the experiences one curates and how one does it that makes one stand apart.

What makes them tick

  • The specially curated events
  • Hosting the now-popular Bengaluru Poetry Festival

Literati – Goa

Diviya Kapur, who runs the Goa bookstore and is a member of the newly formed Independent Bookshops Association of India, says, ‘I think that independent businesses have a future. In the book-selling business, the franchisees have not been spared from closure. There are larger issues at play, of the online monopolies that must be regulated, and of the fact that the publishing and book business is in desperate need of professionalism.”

Set up in 2005, the store used innovative methods to reach out to new customers during the lockdown. India Post became an ally, as did social media platforms. “We are constantly looking for ways to survive irrespective of the circumstance,” Diviya adds.

What makes them tick

  • Hard work, perseverance and sheer love for books
  • Friends have always chipped in with support

Kitab Khana – Mumbai

High ceilings, warm hanging lamps, wooden panelling and Corinthian columns, Mumbai’s iconic bookstore that was established in March 2011 is a booklover’s dream come true. It’s a perfect combination of a spacious modern bookstore and an intimate old-world library.

But the past year has not been kind to this magical store that houses works by greats such as Ghalib, Iqbal and Kabir, among others. If the pandemic was not crippling enough, the store was gutted on December 9 just when it was making a turnaround from the poor sales of almost a year.

But books and dreams are made of sterner stuff, it seems. The bookstore – often referred to as ‘the most beautiful bookshop in Mumbai’ – reopened its doors on March 11, 2021, marking its 10th anniversary. “Kitab Khana is a labour of love. The love, affection and support of so many people drove us to recreate it,” says co-founder Amrita Somaiya.

What makes them tick

  • Flat 20 percent discount on all books
  • Sourcing books from the London Book Fair

Rachna Stores – Gangtok

Established in 1979, this quaint little bookstore briefly shut shop before its rebirth in 2001. Run by Raman Shresta, also known as Gangtok’s ‘Bookman’, the pandemic saw them quickly adapt to the changing circumstances.

Not to disappoint patrons, Shresta himself took to delivering books on foot, besides taking to Instagram and Facebook to reach new readers and be accessible to them. A member of the Independent Bookshops Association of India, he believes learning collectively from each other will make all the difference.

“Our fight is many-fronted – online stores, consumers distracted by other platforms, a shoddy distribution network, misplaced priorities within the industry and very often the publishing industry itself,” he says. He asks, “Do you seriously want to buy books from a place that displays them arranged alphabetically because some algorithm told them so?”

What makes them tick

  • A casual reading space almost like a house party
  • Hosting events across the cultural spectrum

A Bit Here, a Bit There

  • Bookworm in Bengaluru, run by Krishna Gowda, began speed-posting books to the remotest corners of the country, building up sales by 15-20 percent during the pandemic
  • Bengaluru store Champaca worked at putting its entire catalogue online. It also introduced a specially curated book subscription, besides starting a book club.
  • Blossom Book House in Bengaluru run by Mayi Gowda took orders and delivered through Dunzo and Swiggy
  • Mirza Zubair Baig, owner of the almost five-decade-old Delhi store Midland Book Shop, fully digitised its collection of 5,00,000 titles and got on to social media
  • Trilogy in Mumbai had 35 percent of its customers place orders for their friends and family
  • Delhi’s Bahrisons Booksellers did the impossible – opening a fourth shop in the city during the pandemic

    Source: New Indian Express

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