June 26, 2022

How independent bookstores across the country are thriving

There was a time, towards the end of the 2000s, when teddy bears began to occupy the shelves of bookstores. The life-size, almost always neon-colored teddy bear was a sign of desperate times.

Online retailing has grown, leading to steep discounts on books. Some commercial bookstores had slowly begun to allow “related” items, starting with stationery, to stock their shelves. Gradually, some of them gave up and lowered the shutters.

Through it all, independent stores have kind of held their own. Over the past few years, especially after the pandemic, they finally had reason to celebrate. Today, independent bookstores seem busier than ever and are even opening new branches. Among the biggest chains, the three-decade-old Crossword Bookstores in Kemps Corner, Mumbai – their first store – reopened in April, much to the delight of loyalists who had, only about six months earlier, learned of its closure .

So what has changed?

In January 2020, just before the pandemic, Harvard Business School released a working paper titled Reinventing retail: the new resurgence of the independent bookstore. Its author, Ryan L. Raffaelli, argued that “(i) in the context of retail, seismic changes…affecting how consumers interact with online, big-box, and local retailers,… (i)independent bookstores offer a story of hope”.

“Bookstores cannot be run in a corporate setup,” says Aakash Gupta, managing director of Agarwal Business House (ABH) and now CEO of Crossword Bookstores – in August 2021 they bought the majority stake in the chain Shoppers Stop department store in the latter for almost Rs. 41.6 crores. “They must be managed in an entrepreneurial and practical way.” In other words, as an independently run business. He says they continue to view their outlets as trusted and valued neighborhood bookstores.

While he acknowledges that scaling with this principle in mind can be a challenge, brand equity and nostalgia can provide some momentum. When ABH reopened the Kemps Corner store, for example, longtime readers swarmed the renovated space with family and friends, taking to social media with gushing messages.

“There should be that personal touch in running the stores, otherwise it’s impossible with online (e-commerce) competition,” agrees Mayi Gowda, owner of Blossom Book House, Bangalore’s iconic bookstore celebrating its 20th anniversary. years this year. Among Blossom’s regulars today is historian and writer Ramachandra Guha.

“I let them ride,” Gowda says, letting the magic of this almost meditative experience seep in. Navigation leads to discoveries, small moments that become precious memories. And “if anyone asks for a book, even a rare one, I make sure I can find it for them,” says Gowda, who tracks new and used inventory, as well as new and old titles and authors, and ensures that publishers’ inventory lists are mailed to him daily.

For independent bookstores like these, which thrive on personal connections, the pandemic has posed quite a challenge.

Champaca Bookstore, which opened in Bengaluru about eight months before the March 2020 lockdown, had to innovate to retain and grow its budding customer base and stand out to gain loyal followers. “The pandemic has forced us to focus quite quickly,” says Radhika Timbadia, owner of Champaca.

In June 2020, they launched a themed subscription model – a paying subscriber would receive a book or two each month, personally curated and sent by the Champaca team. “Super members,” or premium subscribers, would also have access to events hosted by Champaca, such as book discussions or author interactions, online. Last year, the theme was “translations”; this year, their subscribers receive travel-themed books.

Around the time Champaca launched its subscriptions, however, Full Circle, a 24-year-old store in Delhi’s Khan Market, closed, unable to pay the high rent as visitor numbers dwindled. There were many celebrations among loyalists when it opened in a new location eight months later.

The new Bahrisons store in Chandigarh
(Courtesy of Bahrisons)

Others in the capital, such as Bahrisons and Midland, held their ground, convincing the Delhi government to treat books as essential commodities. Bahrisons went online, taking to Instagram to stay in touch with readers. In May 2020, just a month and a half after the first lockdown, these stores reopened and started using delivery services like Dunzo, as well as the post office, to fulfill customer orders received by phone and WhatsApp. In Bangalore, Blossom has adopted a similar model.

This proved crucial for older stores, as AI-powered e-commerce couldn’t match the quality of familiar human interaction that most of us were beginning to miss. Today, Bahrisons says it has seen a “healthy” increase in sales, averaging 7% over the past five years.

Anuj Bahri, the now 69-year-old bookstore owner, went even further when restrictions began to be lifted. He jumped at the opportunity presented by a pandemic-hit real estate market and quickly opened new branches. Bahrisons had already gone through a few phases of expansion: in 2010, it added two branches in Delhi and in 2017, one in Gurugram, Haryana. In October 2020, a few months into the pandemic, he opened another store in Delhi, in a mall, with an Instagram book launch of Karuna Ezara Parikh’s debut novel, The heart first asks for pleasure. In December 2021, it added another store in Delhi, and in March ventured out of the National Capital Region (NCR) for the first time, with a store in Chandigarh.

“It’s a literary crowd there (Chandigarh),” says Bahri, perched in his place on the attic-like mezzanine in the cramped Khan Market store. “There were also requests to bring the store (there)…it is, after all, a place where bureaucrats can settle after retirement,” he adds, alluding to a good part of the population to which his store Khan Market caters.

The path taken by these stores, during the pandemic in particular, is in line with the “3Cs” that Raffaelli’s article mentions: community, curation and convocation “have contributed to the resurgence of independent bookstores”, he noted. . Now, whether digitally or otherwise, independents old and new are taking the last “C” of “convening” seriously. They see the digital fatigue and isolation-burnout of the past two years as a sign to hold conferences, author signings and other literary events at their stores.

This is evident in the model followed by NCR-based Kunzum, the latest entrant into the physical book retail space. Formerly a cafe with space for small events and photo exhibits, Kunzum Travel Cafe has been rebranded by owner Ajay Jain as Kunzum Books. While the launch in March was marked by a festival at Bikaner House in Delhi, their new stores (at DLF Mega Mall, Gurugram, in March and Vasant Vihar, Delhi, in April) were also buzzing with open mics of poetry and publishers and writers with new books coming in for talks, book signings, or special shelf curation.

“I want it to be a 365-day enlightened festival,” says Jain, who is funding the effort himself. Having already announced the opening of two more branches in Delhi, it hopes to expand across the country – the plan is to have 100 outlets over the next two to three years. For this, Jain says he has “set aside an initial investment” of Rs. 30-50 crores. In about a year, he expects each store to start launching with a turnover of Rs. 3 crores.

They identified two categories that are doing well: non-fiction and self-help titles, and books for children and young adults. To create a community around alumni, they created the “CEO Book Club”. For young readers, they issue “passports” through the BookBees program which can be stamped when each reader reaches a certain number of books purchased, read and discussed at book club meetings. “It encourages reading and loyalty,” says Jain, adding, “so it’s not just about buying children’s books, but more of a community of children’s books here in Kunzum.”

Faith in the physical experience of buying books may not be misplaced. In March, the Kolkata Book Fair welcomed 1.8 million visitors, with sales totaling Rs. 20 crores. According to a report in The era of India, it was much higher than the fair held in 2020, before the pandemic. In the same month, The Hindu reported that the Chennai Book Fair had around 1.5 million visitors and sales of Rs. 15 crores.

In Bangalore, Gowda is also seeing Blossom’s customer base grow. “Since reopening after the second lockdown, I’ve actually seen at least a 20-30% increase in customers,” he says. So much so that Blossom now stays open for half an hour longer, until 10:30 p.m., every day. “There are also a lot more young people now, in the 18-20 age bracket, whereas before it was more of a professional clientele,” he says.

“Curiosity is what drives these kids,” says Bahri, who has observed a similar trend. Gowda and Gupta add that #BookTok, the hashtag that TikTok videos and Instagram reels about books are populated with, has helped bring Gen Z into bookstores.

“At the end of the day, people are still looking for that experience of browsing the shelves to find a book, flipping through a few pages before buying a title,” says Gupta. As a millennial, he remembers the electric excitement every time a Harry Potter book comes out. Pre-orders, long queues on release day, meeting a friend while waiting, the thrill of finally having a copy in your hands. It may take some time for a literary phenomenon to regain momentum, but bookstores as community centers guarantee the space for such a possibility.