Two bookstores and a lockdown: Delhi's Midland and Mumbai's Kitab Khana on weathering the coronavirus crisis
Midland and Kitab Khana have never run on glitz, but the commitment of their readers. However, in a world where intimacy itself is a risk, India’s vintage bookshops must adapt, as they are, to find ways to remain relevant and alive.
Nobody saw this coming. The world has irrevocably changed, its ritualistic familiarity shaken so violently it may never regain an older, recognisable form. The coronavirus epidemic has dealt each facet of our life a hand that will require time, patience and perhaps loss, to understand the full implications of. From travel to the food industry, businesses around the world are facing up to an unprecedented crisis. None more so, than bookshops. Faced with uncertain futures even in the pre-corona world, the epidemic has levelled squarely in the face of India’s bookshops the servile reality of the public’s priorities. As bookshops brace for a post-covid world and a certain dip in footfall, they are looking to adapt to ensure survival.
While bookshops were allowed to open in India during the lockdown it was based on the satirical caveat that it was unlikely they would be crowded. “We opened a week ago. We wanted to open because our readers needed books. Because children are at home this summer due to this unprecedented lockdown the demand for the children’s books has been the highest,” Touseef, speaking on behalf of South Delhi’s beloved Midland Book store, says.
Tucked away in a slight, yet well-stacked shop in Aurobindo Market, Midland has been a vital part of the area’s heritage. Founded by Octogenarian Mirza Yaseen Baig, Midland runs three other outlets in the capital and is now being led by the third generation of the Baig family. “This has also been, and will continue to be a psychological crisis. People need to read to occupy themselves but the infrastructure to do so simply doesn’t exist,” Touseef says. Asked about the financial exigencies, he confirms that none of their staff has been offloaded, but the future does seem precarious.
Over in Mumbai, the city’s beloved Kitab Khana near Fort hasn’t been able to open. “The problem is transport. Even if we wanted to, our staff lives all around the city. They cannot travel without the trains running. Mumbai can’t work without a public transport system,” Mr Jagat, CEO of the store, says. Every bookshop, Mr Jagat says, has its identity, where even their function requires contextualisation to understand survival. Kitab Khana, for example, is as much a tourist attraction as it is a place for books. “The majority of our customers come to us over the weekend. A lot of this fraction is tourists, stepping out to look at the city. They want to experience this place as much as they want to buy from here,” Jagat says. Given Mumbai’s susceptibility to torrential rains, Jagat explains that irrespective of the epidemic business has always dipped in the months between May and August, as people become reluctant to step out. No member of the staff, he confirms, has been furloughed.
Touseef points to an interesting predicament. “People are home. It should have been ideal for booksellers. They would need to read, and therefore, require books. But there was no way to get these books to them. It’s a unique situation. We got so many calls every day, but couldn’t service any,” he says.
Both these bookstores are currently in red zone areas. Before they were allowed to open Midland had already approached Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia for a possible way out. Kitab Khana, on the other hand, is in talks with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to find a temporary solution. There will, however, be no way to go back to normal. “We disinfect the store before we open and before we close every day,” Touseef confirms. Over in Mumbai, Jagat says it will be a massive operation, re-opening, but he is positive that eventually people will flock in.
Over the past week, publishing house Penguin India has been keeping a rolling list of bookstores across Indian metros that have opened for business or are home-delivering books. From the DC and Matrubhumi bookshops in Trivandrum to Bookworm, Goobe’s, Blossoms, Book Hive and Higginbothams in Bengaluru, STORY in Kolkata to Universal Book Company in Varanasi, the increasing number of bookstores and locations being added to the Penguin list every day is heartening, and not just for bibliophiles. (You can keep track of Penguin India’s list here.)
Vintage bookshops like Midland and Kitab Khana may survive for the simple reason that they are emotional as much as financial investments. Adapting though, has become norm. Touseef has just signed his first documents with home delivery service Dunzo, to start delivering within South Delhi. Kitab Khana has turned to social media, holding literary sessions with authors and readers to re-engage a community they count on for their loyalty. “We need to remain in touch with our customers, people who are loyal visitors and buyers. That is what we are about anyway. Personality. We care for them,” Jagat says. Considering that Flipkart and Amazon already deliver books, it seems a fair point that places like Midland and Kitab Khana feel unique because they demand something of their visitors as well.
It’s the distinctiveness of these bookstores that might help them survive in the long run. Compared to them, bigger, flashy chains look like they might struggle to stay afloat. Midland and Kitab Khana have never run on glitz, but the commitment of their readers. However, in a world where intimacy itself is a risk, India’s vintage bookshops must adapt, as they are, to find ways to remain relevant and alive. It may sound clichéd but bookstores may have to count on the one emotion that both its sellers and readers share, more than ever — a passion for books.
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