Ask any Calcuttan what they associate the most with Park Street, and right alongside the famous eateries on the road, they will also name the iconic Oxford Bookstore. The store is an institution in Kolkata, having stood guard in the heart of the city for long enough to provide generations of students, scholars, and hobby readers with a treasure trove of tomes to traipse through. And after an unexpected pause during the pandemic, it’s celebrating its centenary through 2023.
Started in 1919 as the Oxford Bookstore and Stationery shop, it was acquired by the family-run Apeejay Surrendra group in 1987 under the group’s then-steward, Jit Paul. In 1992, Priti Paul, the current Director of the group, took charge of the store.
Paul is the creative force behind both the bookstore and the literature festivals it anchors. She is the Founder Festival Director of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, and it is also under her aegis that the bookstore’s outlets have become hubs for literary events in the country, with marquee festivals such as the Apeejay Bangla Sahitya Utsob and Hindi Sahitya Utsav, too.
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Some of the major changes under her leadership included the introduction of new sections in the bookstore, and the expansion of the children’s library, which shifted to the Apeejay School premises. The Apeejay Anand Children’s library was established to create a clean, cozy and safe space for street kids. One of the libraries was established in collaboration with the NGO Apne Aap, for the children of sex workers. Two more were set up during the pandemic, on a tram and on a boat, West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation.
Her tenure also saw the expansion of the brand to Mumbai, Bhubaneswar, New Delhi, Bengaluru and Noida, and the introduction of the tea boutique, Cha Bar. The café-and-bookstore coupling has now become common in India – but Cha Bar was one of the pioneers of the model, having started in 2002.
In an interview with Lounge, Priti Paul spoke about the legacy of the bookstore, the ups and downs of running it, and more. Edited excerpts.
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What have been the biggest challenges the store has faced in the 100 years? Surely, the pandemic years will be on this list…
The pandemic made us realise that we needed to be more agile in our retailing. This meant that we had to move quickly to omni-channel retailing – that is, moving to online purchases and accepting many different forms of payments for books, events and more. And now, people are coming back to the physical store in droves, as they want to physically attend events, buy books, and sip a cup of tea. I think the fears that readers will shift entirely to both buying and reading books online have been eradicated. Publishers and authors have also realised that bookstores can provide them with an audience via literature festivals and events.
How does a century-old bookstore keep alive institutional memory? Are the employees a big part of this? Is this an important of the story of the store?
Many new bookstores fails because they are too impersonal. I wanted Oxford to feel different from them. I work with a team of women who bring a sort of sensitivity and emotional intelligence to the running of a business. It’s very much a modern, professional retailing practice, but I wanted it to feel like it’s a familiar affair – like when you walk in, you know the people who are there. Our employees have, in general, been with us for a long time. It’s important to take a 360-degree view of our legacy – apart from authors and readers, they are also very much a part of it.
What do you think are the big changes in the running of the store that's been responsible for its longevity? Were any of these changes seen as a shock when they'd happened?
I have a very young team on the ground alongside experienced and older people at the helm of the affairs, which makes for a good mix of the old and the new. As a leader, you have to listen to everyone very carefully, especially advice from people in the know, and see why it is that are they not agreeing. But you also have to make some strategic and bold moves. There was certainly a resistance to changes, but people also embraced my suggestions.
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For example, I introduced a Bengali section in Oxford Bookstore Kolkata – when all the Bengali people on the team warned me not to! They said that no one will buy Bengali books from a nice shop where you can sit down and you have time to browse – they’re used to just going up to the shelf and ordering. I’m happy to say that Bengali book sales account for 10 percent of the store’s revenue now! We’ve had this section for ten years and I went against my whole team for it.
Is this how Cha Bar began?
Sort of! When the initial revamp was happening, in our store in Kolkata I introduced a tea point. We had a kettle, mugs, and different kinds of tea. The idea was that people could browse and help themselves, and when checking out, they could pay a small amount, in an honour-bound system. Then, in Mumbai – we did the full-on big Cha Bar in 2002. We had our own Apeejay Tea division, and I did a lot of research: tea-growing areas in India and the world, ways to serve tea, what kind of food pairs well with tea and so on. I’m really proud that we created something that was original. In our Mumbai store, we would get anywhere between 700 to 1000 people a day! The Mumbai bookstore then became a gathering place – we had Tatas and Birlas visiting, with Kumar Mangalam Birla and Simone Tata dropping by, along with artists, scholars and students.
What are the future plans for Oxford?
We’ve had offers from Australia and Dubai to open outlets there. But I think there’s so much so much potential in India, and also so much work left to do. We look back at 100 years but also forward to the next 100 as well, right here.
Rushati Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata