The world of retail is witnessing a strange paradox. Although more Indians are reading books today and publishing is on an upswing, bookshops in various cities are shutting down one after the other. Those that are braving this trend are increasingly taking to selling toys, gizmos, stationery, expensive writing instruments and other such stuff rather than books.
Take the case of what's happening with India's largest book store chains such as the Tata Group-owned Landmark and the Shoppers Stop-owned Crossword.
Early this week, as Tata’s retail operations company, Trent Limited bought out TVS Shriram Growth Fund's stake in Landmark for Rs. 84 crore, The Financial Express reported that the "Loss-making Landmark is revamping its product mix and shifting to toys and games, which are growing at 30% per annum. Books and music, which had been the mainstay of the retailer, have been facing stiff competition from online retailers. This is forcing many bookstores to diversify."
Barely five months ago, media reports said that both Landmark and Crossword were increasing space for toys, stationery, gaming consoles and sports equipment due to the stiff competition for book sales from e-shopping formats.
It’s not just competition from e-commerce platforms such as flipkart.com, but a variety of factors that are responsible for this, says Janaki Visvanath, proprietor of “twistntales”- a tiny bookshop in a Pune neighbourhood that’s on its deathbed.
After its closure was announced a month back, there has been an unusual outpouring of grief and sadness in the prosperous Aundh neighbourhood in western Pune where this bookshop is located. Patrons have made multiple offers of “what can we do to keep you going”, all reflecting the iconic stature that this bookshop acquired in just 250 sq.ft of space and in the span of barely a decade.
Books are neither perishables nor fast moving consumer goods that they should fly off the shelf. The margins are fixed. And increasingly, people are buying on the Internet, not just for higher discounts but also to save time and the hassles of parking. The biggest death knell has however come not from any of these but from the galloping cost of real estate in the big cities where running a bookshop has become financially unsustainable.
To recover per sq ft cost of space, booksellers are being forced to sell not just high-priced, fast-selling books but also toys and other expensive stuff. These are the very reasons why you should not visit most bookshops, especially the big ones– and never with your children. Because you’ll enter to buy books and step out with toys and trinkets.
Pune's twistntales refused to succumb to this trend and remained steadfastly committed to books and to promoting the reading habit. And that is why this bookstore never stocked movie and music DVDs, expensive writing instruments, fancy stationery or toys. It even banned audio books from its shelves barring low-cost titles from the Chennai-based Karadi Tales- because these audio CDs with books encourage children to read.
A large number of Indian publishers and NGOs bring out excellent, inexpensive books, but you won’t find them in the regular bookshops because the low price and low margins don’t make business sense.
Janaki, who’s trained in Human Resources Development from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, took to putting up a bookshop out of passion more than anything else. Her bookshop was established in 2002 when she moved to Pune from Chennai- a city with many bookshops. There weren’t as many in Pune then and Janaki decided to set up one of her own- without any background in business.
Apart from the mainstream publishers and hot selling titles, she made it a point to go in search of publishers like Tulika, Katha, Karadi Tales and Eklavya from Bhopal who produced good but inexpensive books for children.
Her bookshop stocked titles for children as low as Rs. 10/- brought out by the well-known NGO, Pratham. This brought no revenue for the bookshop but Janaki felt committed to give space to good publishers and NGOs like the Centre for Environment Education and Kalpavriksh for whom the doors are permanently shut in the big bookshops.
She controlled costs by inviting teenagers from the neighbourhood community for paid part-time work during their spare time. “These were students in their first or second years of college and not the third year when they need to concentrate fully on their studies. For many, this was their first job and an opportunity to interact professionally with customers and colleagues. Many batches of student-volunteers have enjoyed their time with twistntales,” says Janaki.
Far away from the world of Landmark and Crossword, Janaki views a bookstore “as a very liberal space”. As an analogy, she pointed out that Ayn Rand sits next to Karl Marx on the bookshelves and “all ideologies are welcome”.
Thus, this is a place where you come, argue, express, share, debate…” Therefore, if a small theatre group needed space, they were offered space gratis by twistsntales. The bookshop has hosted the Kolkata-based theatre group Lok and street plays by Stree Mukti Sanghatana. The writer and academic Dr. Raj Rao’s book on homosexuality was launched in this bookshop, with a book reading.
“We don’t take colour, only provide a platform,” says Janaki.
The bookstore has organised numerous events for children including slide shows on the environment, workshops on story writing, creative thinking, joy of reading sessions and special Christmas events every year when they went to a public hospital and gave gifts to poor children in the pediatric ward.
This past Christmas, the bookshop raised Rs. 1.5 lakhs for the pediatric ward and in the past has helped renovate the neonatal ward and the thalassemia wards through public donations.
One memorable event was a spooky, all-night book reading event during the launch of the sixth Harry Potter title which was released in the morning. “We have made books come alive for many children,” says Janaki.
twistntales showed sensitivity towards all in the community- the bookstore not only organised events for senior citizens but also kept a few pairs of reading glasses handy for those “who were out on a stroll and decided to step inside the shop.” It has even offered space for neighbourhood children who wrote their own books and wanted them displayed.
All of this has given this bookshop a strong community connect, reinforced with a 4,000 strong mailing list, blog, a Facebook page and monthly mailers. Some of this bookshop’s die-hard fans have moved abroad or to other cities but still want to remain connected through the internet.
This community connect is one of the high points for this bookshop which took pride in saying, “We also sell books”.
Financially, the period from 2003 to 2009 was excellent for the bookshop when it held book exhibition-and-sales in Pune’s IT campuses. This came to a halt after some of these campuses gave space to booksellers as facilities offered to their employees.
Janaki sees a definite rise in the number of people reading books. “There are a lot of new readers in the market: many first time readers; software engineers from vernacular medium taking to reading. “They can’t connect with Wodehouse or Somerset Maugham- but can with Chetan Bhagat- and they have enlarged the market for books,” she says.
According to her, management books do not sell the way they used to as a lot of material is available on the net.
The sale of children’s books have gone up tremendously and Indian publishing in the Young Adult category is here to stay, says Janaki. The most popular books with teenagers are the Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl series and the Wimpy Kid series for the pre-teens. “Semi-graphic novels have become very popular among teenagers and one publisher who has made a mark is the New Delhi-based Campfire Graphics, says this bookseller.
The outpouring of sadness over the closure of this bookshop after being around for 11 years has been tremendous. There are at least two hundred messages left behind in a farewell notebook kept on the counter, besides posts on the internet. As one patron said, this was “a place that’s meant something for all of us in this neighbourhood”. Many have felt guilty that they didn’t buy enough books from this shop that would have helped it prosper.
Janaki has the satisfaction of having done her best and does not mourn too much. She sees the death of small bookshops as inevitable in the sea of changes taking place in India.