How India’s Independent Bookstores Survived The Pandemic
Ajit Vikram Singh, founder of Delhi’s iconic Fact and Fiction, which shut down five years ago eloquently described in this piece how we feel when bookstores close: “…we see a deluge of nostalgia flooding our social media timelines. The feeling of heartbrokenness remains for a few days, like a waterlogged road in Delhi during the monsoon, and then it clears away. While we may not know when the pandemic will end…the future of bookshops will essentially depend on how much we really want them.”
Reading this made me squirm with guilt and realise that I couldn’t write this piece until I had visited my favourite Bangalore bookstore for the first time during the pandemic.
We were meeting after almost a year but Bookworm’s owner Krishna Gowda recognised me through my mask and gently offered his condolences for a death in our family. Luckily, his other regulars hadn’t been as inattentive during the pandemic. One famous historian had donated lots of new and used books from his personal collection. A senior tech company employee and the author gave Gowda Rs 2 lakh to tide over the national lockdown—announced on March 24, 2020—which abruptly shuttered all retail businesses.
It was a relief to be back among the familiar stacks. I adeptly steered the husband away from a teetering pile of hard-bound Karnataka Gazetteers and, as penance, bought whatever crime fiction Gowda recommended. Thank god for his impeccable taste.
Like many indie bookstores, Gowda survived by upping his online game. In 2020 he Speed-Posted books to the remotest corners of the country. A customer in Sovima village in Nagaland, more than 3,000 km away, ordered and received The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwab from Bookworm. Gowda says 15-20% of his business now originates from social media.
Bookstores in airports and malls were worst hit but many standalone stores—whose owners and employees wear their love of books as a badge of honour—were inventive and resourceful enough to make it through the long dark tunnel of the pandemic. “Bookstores that were flexible and ready to innovate (tying up with Swiggy to deliver, for example), those that took risks and those that have a USP [unique selling proposition] thrived,” says literary agent Kanishka Gupta. “People who sell books like soap suffered most.”
Gupta should know. Since March he has curated around 200 stories under the head Publishing and the Pandemic for Scroll. These tales of hope and passion range from the Kashmiri book seller who distributed books via doctors, the only people allowed out for months in a strict curfew, to the Delhi bookstore that realised early what they needed to do more than ever: “Be there for our community before we ask them to show up for us.”
The community certainly showed up in December when Ram Sarangan tweeted about his mother’s new bookstore in Tamil Nadu’s Nagercoil. “I had 250 followers and I was expecting five people to like my tweet.” Instead, after his book lover colleagues at The Indian Express did their bit to spread the word, it became his most popular tweet.
The bookstore wasn’t exactly new. For 15 years it had been the only one in the district. School textbooks accounted for the bulk of sales. But his mother had been planning to shift to a central location with better parking and introduce a more organised, diverse catalogue. “After I posted pictures of the new store, people told me over and over again, ‘It’s so good to see a new bookstore come up at a time when others are shutting down’,” he says over the phone.
Sarangan witnessed first-hand an “extreme fondness for bookstores and what they represent”. “I think people like the idea of book spaces surviving and some of them go out of the way to get the number of the local bookstore before going to an online retailer.” Two months later, their expanded catalogue has reaped dividends. Readers are experimenting more than ever, buying everything from The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris to translated titles by Tamil authors such as Salma and Perumal Murugan. One of their biggest sellers is Michele Obama’s Becoming.
Bookstores have worked overtime to come up with creative survival strategies. One of Bangalore’s newest and best, Champaca, put its entire catalog online, offering shipping across India. Champaca introduced a book subscription—a parcel of curated books that you receive in the mail—and started a book club. For the holiday season, the store offered gift boxes—with a customisation option.
Many book lovers appointed themselves brand ambassadors of an indie bookstore. One friend aggressively promoted Reader’s Paradise, an indie bookstore in Indore since 1975, tweeting repeatedly about it, pleading with friends to order books from here, buying books on their behalf to get them started.
In Kolkata, journalist Indrajit Hazra discovered Read Bengali Bookstore by chance when he was going to get his eyes checked. It became his regular haunt. “The nice thing about it, magical if you will, is that I don't end up ‘pity-buying’ every time I’m there,” he says.
“Its USP is that the persons who man the store know the books and customers—a sort of walking talking algorithm making suggestions, etc without pushing anything down anyone’s throats. I want to pick up books from this store especially when I’m surprised by a title or two, as opposed to going there with something in mind,” he adds.
When a curator of a popular literature festival takes on the mantle of informal promoter, you can be sure there will be celebrities involved too. Last year the pandemic stopped Vivek Menezes from organising the annual Goa Arts & Literature Festival (GALF) but he still managed to generate some literary excitement in Goa’s The Dogears Bookshop, buying books, arranging for titles to be available, and inviting famous authors like Romila Thapar and Shashi Tharoor to participate in a new Saturday conversation series.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. “Dogears supported me during the first few weeks of the pandemic, when out of state mail was impossible. They put together batches of the books I needed, and arranged for delivery to my home in Panjim,” says Menezes. “The store's collection is curated with unusual care, with an emphasis on local authors, translation, and books of especial connection to our localized concerns about identity and belonging.”
Some readers discovered bookstores serendipitously.
Nirali Shah says she’s been going through an “Asian culture phase” for three years—one that began with anime and moved to television dramas. “It suddenly struck me that I could also buy books by Asian authors…So I asked for recommendations on my Instagram and Mahika from The Bookshop at Jor Bagh follows me and gave me a bunch of recommendations that I ended up ordering from them!” Shah says she was “shocked” at how promptly the books were delivered and has pledged to stay off Amazon.
Others, like artist Tara Anand, also my niece and always a reader (I was camerawoman at her Harry Potter-themed eighth birthday), use Instagram effectively to draw more people to her “bookstores = good is a fundamental truth” camp.
Anand has always promoted indie book ventures such as Battered Pages (that finds loving homes for books), The Blind Book Date (that sets up people on blind dates with books), and Bombay Underground (that sells second-hand books and runs The Sister Library) but recently she started Bookstores of Bombay with her friend Anoushka Agarwal. “When you tell people to buy from bookstores, their issue is that they don't know which ones will have what they want, how to get in touch with the store, whether or not they deliver in the pandemic,” says Anand, who also paints detailed miniatures of books she refers to as Tiny Books. “Most people only know one or two bookstores when there are so many with really solid collections and a fair few speciality ones too.”
“I was sick of people crying when bookstores closed down and then buying from Amazon,” she adds. Ajit Vikram Singh would agree that the future of bookstores is safe with readers like Anand.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.