There is something so peaceful about book shopping, especially when it involves walking the labyrinthine streets of old Kolkata, sipping a chilled glass of dab sharbat (tender coconut mocktail) from the legendary Paramount, and taking a whiff of a newly-purchased book, be it old or new.
A trip to College Street — the city’s reservoir of books — just before the beginning of the new school year, was an annual ritual for my family. A paradise for bibliophiles, the serpentine streets would open up to a large space with honeycombs of book stalls, tiny spaces, but with a vast variety. In fact, there is a popular saying back home that if you did not find a particular book in College Street, it probably never existed.
The connection between a customer and the seller, popularly known as boi-dada, and the personalised guidance they provided through the book shopping experience cannot be compared with a few clicks online and a parcel delivered.
But, the ravages of the pandemic has left many without a choice. Not just tiny bookstalls, but prominent bookstores across the country have experienced a financial run-down owing to the lockdown.
“For the past 5 months, there has been zero income coming in and I have 5 mouths to feed at home. Now with the unlock procedures in place, we are slowly opening the shops but there hardly are any customers coming in. In the past, these streets would be flooded with people and now they lie deserted,” shares S K Abbasuddin, owner of Diamond Book Stall, who has been selling books in College Street for the past 40 years.
However, in the face of this adversity, there are some bookstores and book cafes across the country looking to evolve and embrace new business models for survival. Bengaluru’s Blossom Book House is one of them.
Blossom Book House
“In the last 19 years of our being, we have never suffered this way. Despite the onslaught of competition from online e-commerce websites, demonetisation or even the months-long road construction, we would always somehow have customers coming in. But the lockdown pushed sales to an absolute zero. The only way to survive was change, so we began to make deals with delivery aggregators in the city and started to take book orders on the phone and deliver them,” says owner Mayi Gowda, speaking to The Better India.
A name that is synonymous with the city’s identity, Blossom has spent over a decade nurturing and building a loyal community of customers and it is they who are supporting it stay afloat. Mayi adds that with their encouragement, he is planning on starting an ecommerce bookstore in a month.
Talking about competition especially with the preexisting prominent ecommerce platforms that sell books, he says, “We have an edge over them because we have built a relationship with our customers. It’s more personal. Plus, we take special requests and orders and make sure to find them books that are not easily available even online. Also one thing that sets us apart from other online or offline bookstores is that we also sell and now deliver old secondhand books.”
To order from Blossom, please contact on 9448220202.
Pagdandi Bookstore Café
A similar model was also embraced by Pune-based Pagdandi Bookstore Cafe. Founded by Vishal and Neha Pipraiya in 2013, the café is a safe-space for all artistic endeavours. Pagdandi, a rough untouched path uphill that only appears when you tread on it, is a metaphor that inspired the duo to start this venture, so when they met with the challenging circumstances of COVID-19, they weren’t ready to give up, just yet.
Speaking to TBI, Vishal says, “This situation has been even more tough than demonetization. At the time our revenues had dropped but the lockdown pushed it to rock-bottom. But, even in all this we knew that we had to make sure all our employees were looked after. Unlike many eateries around, we did not fire a single employee and continued to manage to pay their salaries. And one way we could make that possible was a gift voucher system with a no expiry date.
With the cafe getting zero orders, we also decided to shut it down and focus all efforts on the bookstore.”
Also known for organising various events like Pune Poetry Slam, Open Mic, Acoustic Jams, workshops etc, the duo decided to take it all online. Through various video conferencing platforms, they began to organise poetry events almost every week.
“We do not earn that much from these online events but it surely helps in this situation. It also helps in getting the much-needed traction. Prior to this, our audience and customer base was more local but now people from all over the country join and it has helped us open up to the world,” he adds.
To order from Pagdandi, please visit this link or contact on 9890992470.
Champaca Bookstore, Library and Café
Born out of a dream of creating a diverse space for underrepresented books and authors, themes and ideas, Bengaluru-based Champaca Bookstore, Library and Café is a curated bookstore that thrives on providing a book reading and shopping experience like no other.
The cafe serves comfort food and a warm and welcoming environment that perfectly complements the free flowing and inclusive space full of specially curated books. Through this place, the co-founder Radhika Timbadia was creating a community of storytellers and listeners.
Things came to an abrupt halt when the lockdown struck. Less than a year old, Champaca closed down on March 19, and was badly hit financially.
“It was quite a difficult phase. Being fairly new, we did not have any buffer savings to fall back on. Paying the rent for the place and the salaries of our staff was a challenge, but a priority. At that point we had to keep it together and figure out a way to make sure our staff got paid regularly,” says Radhika, who launched a gift voucher programme to stay afloat.
Under this initiative, customers could buy a gift voucher and redeem it with a 10% discount anytime till the next year. With the support of the community of readers and customers they had gathered in the past 10 months, Champaca began to get back on its feet.
The next step was to go online, so they launched an e-commerce bookstore in May.
“All of a sudden, the world opened up for us and we were not only selling books outside of Bengaluru but could also hold online video conference sessions with any author we liked. From book launches to discussions, since then we have been trying to make the best use of this platform,” she says.
In June, Champaca hosted American writer and author of New York Times best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay in an online discussion. They even went on to launch an initiative called Reading For Change, in collaboration with the Bangalore Sustainability Forum and Science Gallery, with an objective to discuss the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through books.
Another initiative introduced by Radhika was to launch the book subscription programme. They have three, to six to twelve-month plans, whereby readers will get one book a month, and sometimes a companion book as well, along with a curation note, bookmarks and postcards. Plus, the members subscribing to the advanced packages will get access to a monthly book club hosted by literary critic Somak Ghoshal and a Slack channel for discussion. All of these efforts are to continue to nurture the close-knit community of readers — something that forms the crux of Champaca’s existence.
To order from Champaca, please visit this link.
Apart from the challenges and their collective efforts to stay afloat and relevant even during these testing times, there is something else that connects these three bookstores — the need for physical interaction.
Both Vishal and Radhika stress on the fact that the online platform is more of a temporary contingency plan for them, because their very identity is hinged on the idea of creating a physical safe space for all artistic and intellectual expressions. Outside of the virtual world, these spaces are meant to bring like-minded people together, and they hope that post COVID-19, they can soon resume to create difference one book and one conversation at a time.
“When we started, we wanted to give the community a place to belong, beyond judgements or any agendas. And now, in these difficult times, this community is giving us back the support and encouragement we so need. Hopefully soon, in a post pandemic world, we will be able to resume our human interactions to collaborate, share and create meaningful moments,” says Vishal.
Featured Image source: goutam.sarkar_/Instagram
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)