Libraries and bookshops, especially independent bookshops, are most people’s first experience of a world beyond textbooks. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Bahibala started their journey as booksellers with a travelling library and later with an independent bookshop, Walking Bookfairs. After recently celebrating the ninth anniversary of their venture, the duo have announced the Bookseller of the Year award, the first of its kind, to recognise bookstore workers across India.
Back in 2013, when Mishra walked into the bookshop that Bahibala was working in, he didn’t imagine that a conversation about the commercialisation of book-selling and the relative inaccessibility of fiction books would lead to them starting a travelling library.
“We quit our jobs, left everything, and went to a small town in Odisha called Koraput, carrying backpacks filled with books with one idea—to encourage people to start reading beyond their curriculum,” recalls Bahibala. Today, they have travelled more than 32,000km and reached 20 states. In 2018, they also did a first-of-its-kind India tour with a travelling poetry library with books in English, Hindi, and Odia.
“We have done three trips across Odisha and two India tours,” says Bahibala. “During the tours, we noticed that many districts don’t have proper bookshops or libraries, and even when they do, there keep only curriculum-related books. Most children pick up a reading habit in school libraries so it’s important to make that a priority.”
Their books in their travelling library have led to the first storybook-reading experience for many young and old readers in these 20 states. In a culture where knowledge is often limited to textbooks and fiction is considered trivial, there is barely any understanding of the important analysis of society and the building blocks of empathy that stories provide.
Mishra and Bahibala are focusing on steering the wheel towards independent bookshops and making storybooks accessible to all. In 2015, they set up an almost completely solar-powered bookshop in Bhubaneshwar. Now, they are focusing on the Bookseller of the Year award as a way to celebrate and support bookstore workers who are often invisibilized.
We spoke to Mishra and Bahibala about the award, their decade-long journey, and the importance of independent bookshops and booksellers in a democracy.
Bahibala: This award is not for the bookstore owners or companies running bookstores, it is specifically for the bookstore workers, the invisible working-class people who are the backbone of the publishing industry in India, and yet who get no recognition for their hard work.
I started working in a bookstore as a data entry operator in 2010 with an in-hand salary of around ₹5,000 and when I quit my job as a bookstore manager it was around ₹15,000 in hand. Things have not changed in the last decade, even today in 2023, the average salary in bookstores is not more than ₹15,000 in India, with very little scope to grow.
Writers get all the mileage socially and financially when books do well. There are awards to recognise writers and publishers but none for booksellers. Through this award, we hope to help the winner financially to start a small business or use the money to travel or for a break, which we all deserve. This is just the beginning; we will start adding more things to the award and might collaborate with other publishers to give bigger prize money and other things.
Mishra: Yes, there is a lack of recognition and support for booksellers in India. In other countries, bookstores and booksellers are appreciated and even celebrated for the essential work they do. Publishers and writers support booksellers and bookstores. But in India, this is not the case. You will not find booksellers getting invited like writers or publishers to the numerous festivals celebrating literature. Hopefully, things will change soon.
Mishra: Things have not changed much. Piracy is rampant and one can now find pirated books in physical bookstores as well. The readers are mostly unaware and cannot distinguish between authentic copies and fakes or don’t care. Most bookstores stock only best sellers or textbooks. For most of the Indian population, books and bookstores are still inaccessible.
Mishra: Just as any community needs shops that sell food and other essentials, we also need bookstores in every neighbourhood to nourish our minds and souls. We at Walking BookFairs champion social justice and raise a voice against oppression and inequality. Our selection of books is also a reflection of this. We highlight small and independent presses, diverse literature, women writers, writers from underrepresented communities and dissenting voices that are constantly being erased and threatened.
We believe independent bookstores and booksellers have a huge role to play in any democratic society. Our job is not to sell bestsellers, it is to hold a mirror to society. In a world that is getting more and more divided every day, bookstores stand as an open, safe, healing and empowering space for everybody, irrespective of their religion, race, caste or gender. We stand for love, which is the most important thing.
Applications for the Bookseller of the Year award will open shortly. The winner will receive a cash prize of ₹25,000 and a certificate of excellence.