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The measure of a book

At the Butterfly Books fairs in different cities, Mumbai-based couple Madhavi and Ajay Gupta sell books by the kilogram

Madhavi and Ajay at their book sale in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Madhavi and Ajay at their book sale in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In the large Sunderbhai hall in Churchgate, Mumbai, long wooden tables run from one end of the room to another, heaving under the weight of books new and old. Dragging a wide blue basket through an aisle, Akshay Kodala is running his finger along the spines in the section marked “fiction", rummaging through a mix of historical novels, detective stories and standard literary fare. His basket already has more than a kilogram of books, and once he is done choosing, he walks over to the weighing scale at the end of the hall.

At the Butterfly Books’ fair—which comes to Mumbai three-four times a year—books aren’t judged by their covers; they’re judged by their weight. A kilo of fiction or non-fiction costs Rs100, a kilo of children’s books, Rs200. “I was so excited to hear about it," says Kodala, a 21-year-old student from Gujarat, with the thrill of a bibliophile who has stumbled upon a bookish Disneyland. “The prices are really good."

Five years ago, Madhavi and Ajay Gupta, the proprietors of Butterfly Books, began selling books by weight, launching an extraordinary retail experiment at a moment when the business was facing an existential crisis.

The couple started their outfit in Mumbai in 2001 with Rs4 lakh, importing and selling obscure children’s books in India. At first, things went well. At their inaugural sale, the stock of 4,000 books sold out in two days. For several years they only dealt in children’s books, introducing titles to local audiences, shaping a niche for themselves in the market. About six years ago, they began diversifying into general fiction, non-fiction, travel and other genres.

But around then something changed; online book retailers began widening their reach, electronic reading picked up. Sales began to decline—the business they had known and loved for a decade had changed imperceptibly but definitively.

One September afternoon in 2012, when it didn’t look like their stock—priced at Rs50-250, itself quite a reasonable range—was doing well, Ajay, 50, came up with an idea. Why not sell them by their weight?

“I said no!" exclaims Madhavi, during a meeting at the couple’s warehouse-cum-office. “It’s like selling vegetables! How can you sell books like that!"

But it looked like there was nothing else to do but try out this seemingly blasphemous route. “We had to think of a way of surviving," says Ajay. “We had to change the model."

So for the concluding week of the exhibition, they piloted this approach. “It was so huge that the line for billing went all the way out past the gate of the hall," says Madhavi. “We were relieved," she continues. “So, so relieved. It really got us out of a slump."

In a high-ceilinged warehouse, amidst more than 3,000 boxes, the Guptas are on their haunches, sifting, sorting and piling books. There’s a large tower of the climate-change book Seven Years To Save The Planet near the entrance, and cookbooks and illustrated books spilling out of half-opened cartons. The air is redolent with top notes of old paper and infiltrated by the dampness of the late-monsoon Mumbai afternoon.

Ajay positions himself beside Madhavi on a stool, smiling at the thought of the “brainwave" that unexpectedly worked. Soon after that successful trial, they decided to trademark the three magic words: “books by weight". In July, their application was approved, granting them exclusive use of that phrase.

At a time when chains like Crossword have shrunk their book space and reports of struggling independent book stores trigger fresh obituaries on printed books, the Guptas have perhaps been unexpectedly successful. But they don’t simply see themselves as merchants. “It’s not just about profit; margins are small," says Ajay. “But this way everyone can get a chance (to buy and read)."

Is this approach sustainable? “Honestly, we don’t know," says Madhavi. “We need to keep reaching out to new people and expand into other cities." The couple also takes its fair to Bengaluru and Pune, and has been beseeched by readers from other places to visit. Considering that they sell more than a million books a year, news of the death of reading might be unfounded. “Oh, that’s exaggerated," says Madhavi. “People are still reading. Schools are promoting reading in a huge way."

The Guptas themselves have kilograms of books in their Wadala apartment. Their seven-year-old son has his own private library of 10,000 children’s book titles in a separate room. Ajay playfully rues that his wife has culled several from his own collection, leaving him with a mere 1,500.

The couple’s personal involvement in the business is palpable. In their ground-floor warehouse in Worli, they spend mornings and afternoons sorting, ordering and stacking books. Madhavi says that when she was timed once, she found she could classify eight books a minute. “Maybe more," she laughs. Her husband says they probably sort 150,000 a month. About 40% of the books are brand new, the rest are second-hand; the collection is sourced from publishers, book stores and libraries in the UK.

Purists might shudder that a cultural artefact has been reduced to the weight it racks up on a scale, but there is no gainsaying the appeal to the thrifty buyer. “At every fair, someone will come up and say to us, ‘God bless you for what you are doing, we wouldn’t be able to quench our thirst for books otherwise,’" says Madhavi.

Even in their lean phase, they didn’t really consider doing anything else, since literature is what they know best. “When you go through a slump, it’s like with any business," says Madhavi, an inveterate lover of the classics. “Even when we couldn’t afford to, we kept it going."

Over the years I have bought everything from John Irving and Lionel Shriver to Simon Winchester and Roddy Doyle from their selection. Some finds have been long-sought and especially triumphal; others have been fortuitous discoveries of new writers. None have cost more than Rs40 apiece. All have been in good condition.

At the fair, the books are not organized by title or author, but simply left there, awaiting discovery. The element of surprise and serendipity, very much in play, could either be terribly confounding or terribly exciting—depending on the kind of book buyer you are.

Anushka Naik, a business management graduate, is the patient kind, and on a rainy afternoon is rifling through a table crammed with titles. She has picked out at least a kilogram so far—including an Ian McEwan and a Henning Mankell—and looks like she’s just getting started. “My mother warned me not to bring home more than 2 kilograms," says Naik, 25, with a guilty laugh. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen."

Butterfly Books will hold Books By Weight fairs in Bengaluru from 6-12 November, in Mumbai from 18-22 November, in Delhi from 27 November-1 December and in Pune from 15-24 December.

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