There was a time, around the late 2000s, when teddy bears had started occupying shelf space in book stores. The life-sized, almost always neon-coloured teddy bear was a sign of desperate times.
Online retail had grown, bringing with it heavy discounts on books. Some commercial book stores had slowly begun allowing “related” items, starting with stationery, to line their shelves. Gradually, some of them gave up and downed shutters.
Through all this, independent stores somehow held on. In the last few years, especially following the pandemic, they have finally had some cause for cheer. Today indie book stores seem busier than ever, and are even opening new branches. Among the bigger chains, the three-decade-old Crossword Bookstores outlet at Kemps Corner, Mumbai—their first store—reopened in April, much to the delight of loyalists who had, only about six months earlier, received news of its closure.
So what has changed?
In January 2020, just ahead of the pandemic, the Harvard Business School published a working paper titled Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence Of The Independent Bookstore. Its author, Ryan L. Raffaelli, argued that “(i)n the context of retail, seismic shifts…affecting the way consumers engage with online, big box, and local retailers,…(i)ndependent bookstores provide a story of hope”.
“Book stores cannot be run in a corporate set-up,” says Aakash Gupta, the managing director of Agarwal Business House (ABH) and now CEO of Crossword Bookstores—in August 2021, they bought department store chain Shoppers Stop’s controlling stake in the latter for close to Rs. 41.6 crore. “They have to be run in an entrepreneurial, hands-on way.” That is, like an independently run business. He claims they continue to think of their outlets as reliable and well-loved neighbourhood book stores.
While he agrees that scaling up with this principle in mind can be a challenge, brand value and nostalgia can offer some momentum. When ABH reopened the Kemps Corner store, for instance, longtime readers swarmed the renovated space with family and friends, taking to social media with gushing posts.
“There should be that personal touch to running the stores, otherwise it is impossible with online (e-commerce) competition,” agrees Mayi Gowda, owner of Blossom Book House, the iconic book store in Bengaluru which turns 20 this year. Blossom regulars today include historian and writer Ramachandra Guha.
“I let them browse,” Gowda says, letting the magic of that almost meditative experience seep in. Browsing leads to discoveries, small moments that become cherished memories. And “if anyone asks for a book, even rare ones, I make sure I am able to source it for them,” says Gowda, who keeps track of new and second-hand stock, as well as new and old titles and authors, and ensures publisher stock lists are mailed to him daily.
For indie book stores like these, which thrive on personal relationships, the pandemic threw up quite a challenge.
The Champaca Bookstore, which opened in Bengaluru just about eight months before the March 2020 lockdown, had to innovate to retain and build on its fledgling base of customers, and stand out to gain loyalists. “The pandemic forced us to sharpen our focus pretty quickly,” says Radhika Timbadia, Champaca’s owner.
In June 2020, they launched a thematic subscription model—a paying subscriber would get a book or two every month, personally curated and sent by the Champaca team. “Super Members”, or premium subscribers, would also have access to Champaca-organised events, like book discussions or interactions with authors, online. Last year, the theme was “translations”; this year, their subscribers get books themed on travel.
Around the time that Champaca kicked off its subscriptions, however, Full Circle, a 24-year-old store in Delhi’s Khan Market, shut shop, unable to pay the high rent as visitor numbers fell. There was considerable celebration among loyalists when it opened in a new location eight months later.
Others in the Capital, like Bahrisons and Midland, held on, convincing the Delhi government to treat books as essential commodities. Bahrisons went online, taking to Instagram to stay in touch with readers. In May 2020, just a month and a half into the first lockdown, these stores reopened and started using delivery services like Dunzo, as well as the post, to fulfil customer orders received on phone and WhatsApp. In Bengaluru, Blossom adopted a similar model.
This proved to be crucial for the older stores, since AI-driven e-commerce could not match the quality of familiar human interaction most of us were beginning to miss. Today Bahrisons says it has observed a “healthy” increase in sales, by 7% on average for five years.
Anuj Bahri, the owner of the now 69-year-old book store, went one step further when restrictions began to be lifted. He jumped at the opportunity presented by a pandemic-hit real estate market and rapidly opened up new branches. Bahrisons had already been through a few rounds of expansion: In 2010, it had added two branches in Delhi, and in 2017, one in Gurugram, Haryana. In October 2020, a few months into the pandemic, it opened another Delhi store, in a mall, with an Instagram book launch of Karuna Ezara Parikh’s debut novel, The Heart Asks Pleasure First. In December 2021, it added yet another store in Delhi, and in March, ventured out of the National Capital Region (NCR) for the first time, with a store in Chandigarh.
“It’s a literary crowd there (Chandigarh),” says Bahri, perched at his spot in the attic-like mezzanine in the narrow Khan Market store. “There were also requests to bring the store (there)...it is, after all, a spot for bureaucrats to settle down after they retire,” he adds, alluding to a good chunk of the demographic to which his Khan Market store caters.
The path these stores have traversed, during the pandemic in particular, is in line with the “3Cs” that Raffaelli’s paper mentions: Community, curation and convening “contributed to the independent book store resurgence”, he had noted. Now, whether digitally or otherwise, old and new indies are taking the last “C”, of “convening”, seriously. They view the digital-fatigue and isolation-exhaustion of the last two years as a sign to organise talks, author signings and other literary events—at their stores.
This is evident in the model followed by the NCR-based Kunzum, the latest entrant in the physical bookselling space. Once a coffee shop with a space for small events and photo displays, the Kunzum Travel Cafe has been rebranded by owner Ajay Jain as Kunzum Books. If the launch in March was marked with a fest at Bikaner House in Delhi, their new stores (at the DLF Mega Mall, Gurugram, in March and Vasant Vihar, Delhi, in April) have also been abuzz with poetry open mics, and editors and writers with new books dropping in for talks, signings, or curating special bookshelves.
“I want it to be a 365-day lit fest,” says Jain, who is funding the effort himself. Having already announced the opening of two more branches in Delhi, he hopes to expand across the country—the plan is to have 100 outlets over the next two-three years. For this, Jain says he has “set aside an initial investment” of Rs. 30-50 crore. In about a year, he expects each store to start pitching in with sales turnover of Rs. 3 crore.
They have identified two categories that are doing well: non-fiction and self-help titles, and children’s and young adult books. To build a community around the former, they have started the “CEO Book Club”. For younger readers, they issue “passports” through the BookBees programme which can be stamped when each reader hits a certain number of books bought, read and discussed in book club meetings. “This encourages reading and loyalty,” says Jain, adding that “it’s therefore not just about buying children books, but more about a children’s book community here at Kunzum”.
Faith in the physical experience of book-buying may not be misplaced. In March, the Kolkata Book Fair saw 1.8 million visitors, with sales totalling Rs. 20 crore. According to a report in The Times Of India, this was much higher than the fair held in 2020, pre-pandemic. In the same month, The Hindu reported that the Chennai Book Fair saw roughly 1.5 million visitors and sales of Rs. 15 crore.
In Bengaluru, Gowda is also seeing the customer base at Blossom grow. “Since reopening after the second lockdown, I have actually seen at least a 20-30% increase in customers,” he says. So much so that Blossom now stays open half-an- hour longer, until 10.30pm, every day. “There are also many more youngsters now, in the age group of 18-20, while earlier it was more a professional office-going crowd,” he says.
“Curiosity is driving these kids,” says Bahri, who has observed a similar trend. Gowda and Gupta add that #BookTok, the hashtag with which TikTok videos and Instagram Reels on books are populated, has helped get Gen Z into book stores.
“At the end of the day, people still crave that experience of sifting through shelves for a book, flipping some pages before they buy a title,” says Gupta. As a millennial, he remembers the electric excitement every time a Harry Potter book released. The pre-orders, the long queues on the day of release, bumping into a friend when waiting, the thrill of finally getting a copy in your hand. It may be a while before a literary phenomenon holds sway quite like that again—but book stores as community centres ensure the space for such a possibility.