In the best of times, independent bookstores face umpteen challenges and it takes a special brand of optimism and an abiding love for books to continue on during a pandemic.

Interiors of a bookstore and cafe Shelves of books on one side with tables next to it Champaca Bookstore, Café and Library
Features Bookstores Thursday, April 22, 2021 - 15:12

Radhika Timbadia had created the bookstore of her dreams – shelves of interesting books covering everything from the environment and caste to international fiction and memoirs. Champaca Bookstore, Café and Library in Bengaluru was an inclusive and safe space to host events; a cosy café where you could enjoy a cup of coffee while you read, and a small library dedicated to children’s books. But within 10 months of its opening, the pandemic hit and subsequently the lockdown.

“I remember being so upset when I realised I’d have to close the store,” says Radhika, a former wildlife researcher and conservationist.

At the same time, across town in Koramangala, Atta Galatta stood empty and locked. It was hard to imagine that this eight-year-old bookstore and café was once bustling with activity. Known for its collection of books by Indian authors writing in English and regional languages, as well as translations, the space was an institution of sorts in the city. “We had also started a poetry festival called ‘Let Poetry Be’ and tied up with The Bangalore Literature Festival,” says Lakshmi Shankar, who started the space with her husband, Subodh. The popular festival was in its fifth year when the pandemic hit.

After spending a week or so feeling worried and upset, Radhika decided that enough was enough. For the moment she had to find a way to make rent and pay the staff. After some brainstorming with her team, Champaca launched a gift voucher programme. Customers could buy a gift voucher and redeem it at the store any time that year and at a 10% discount. “The response was overwhelming,” says Radhika. “We were able to cover rent and salaries for a couple of months.”

Things took off from there. Radhika had always planned to have a virtual store as well. And in May 2020, Champaca went online and started selling books via social media to folks in the city. Next up was subscription boxes in June 2020, marking Champaca’s first birthday.

“The theme for the first year was translations,” says Radhika. “And it came in three, six and 12-month plans.” Subscribers would get a book, bookmarks and postcards in their box, and occasionally a companion book. Those who opted for the advance plans had access to a book club hosted by critic Somak Ghoshal. Some of the books chosen included Chandrabati’s Ramayan, translated by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, and Cox by Christoph Ransmayr.

More than just books

Most independent bookstores don’t just put books on their shelves and expect customers to walk in. They try to create an inviting space so people want to engage and spend time, so they often have a café, event space and more. Champaca, in the short time it’d been around, hosted quite a few discussions involving books, book signings and book launches. It featured Bengaluru authors like Poornima Laxmeswar (Strings Attached) and Priya Balasubramaniam (The Alchemy of Secrets) among others.

And the team didn’t let the pandemic stop them. The events just went digital. “Since everything was moving online, we had access to authors we never imagined we’d be able to interact with,” says Radhika. Team Champaca had conversations with Roxane Gay, Tiffany Tsao, Nisha Susan, Wanjiru Koinange, to name a few.

Atta Galatta took their events online as well. Events had always been an important part of their physical space. So even if the store couldn’t be kept open, the events would continue. There was the Ask the Author series where Manu S Pillai, Shobha De and Maithreyi Karnoor, to name a few, participated. Let Poetry Be went online too and featured Annie Finch, Shikha Malaviya and Meera Dasgupta, among others, with poetry recitations, workshops and more.

But one thing Lakshmi and Subodh were sure was that they would not move their store online. “The whole idea of starting the bookstore, for us, was to grow old with it, to run it for as long as we could,” says Lakshmi.

Atta Galatta was in a rented space in Koramangala, and paying rent was getting harder. So the couple decided to sell their stock at a massive discount and close shop. But, wait, that wasn’t the end. Because they decided to build a store of their own. “We pooled our resources and bought a place in Indira Nagar and have been spending our time constructing the new space,” says Lakshmi. The multi-storey structure will house the bookstore, a performance space, café and their home.

“We wouldn’t have taken the decision if not for the pandemic,” says Lakshmi. “Though it was always a long-term plan, we were pushed into making the decision now.” The new Atta Galatta is set to open in June 2021.

Adapting to the new normal

In the best of times, brick-and-mortar independent bookstores face umpteen challenges – e-commerce booksellers with their massive discounts, bookstore chains owned by corporate houses, e-books, to name a few. So it takes a special brand of optimism, courage and an abiding love for books that makes someone decide to open a bookstore. And these independent bookstore owners have all three in spades.

Bookworm

The lockdown didn’t faze Krishna, the owner of Bookworm on Church Street, who has been in the business for over two decades. “I started off selling books on the pavement on MG Road in the late 90s,” he says, at which time he was also pursuing his graduation. “My customer base grew and eventually I saved up enough money to rent a small space nearby.” Business continued to grow and in 2016 he opened Bookworm, which joined the ranks of popular second-hand bookstores that line Church Street. It was common to see customers coming in with bags of old books that they would exchange at Bookworm for 50% store credit.

When the lockdown happened, Krishna waited it out patiently. Once it lifted, he reopened the store and sent out messages to his long-time customers. The list for books came pouring in. Things got busy, and he spent hours sending book suggestions via WhatsApp, packing the orders and having them delivered to customers, who would make the payment online. “My fantastic customer base protected me and the store,” says Krishna. “And the store’s sales were overall not so badly affected, we even managed to break even.”

A strong customer base and a sense of community is a common theme among the city’s independent bookstores. Aashti Mudnani, founder of Lightroom Bookstore, which specialises in children’s books, attests to this. “Firstly, we’re very fortunate to be in a city where we have a large number of people who want to support stores such as ours. Second, over the last 8 years, we’ve grown a very loyal and generous customer base, many have become friends, and some who try very hard to make sure we survive,” says Aashti.

Lightroom is a child’s paradise. Aashti has curated children’s books from around the world – books with lovely illustrations, imaginative stories, encyclopaedias, pop-up books. A place where you find kids lying on the floor poring over a book and even grownups shopping for themselves. But there were challenges, with online marketplaces that sell books for less and customers checking prices on Amazon while they browsed through her very carefully handpicked shelves. The pandemic made things even harder. “We used to hold two events a month – storytelling sessions, author visits, illustration workshops and other things, and we had a great response,” says Aashti. But all that had to stop in the past year.

Things have only just started to look up. People from around the city started ordering books over WhatsApp or Instagram and the books would be delivered to them via Dunzo. “We’re now getting orders from all over the country, especially smaller towns,” says Aashti. “More people got introduced to us this year through social media and word of mouth,” she adds.

Looking to the future

While the independent bookstores in the city have opened up in some capacity, as the country now finds itself in the middle of a second wave what does the future hold for them? Radhika says they’ll continue what they have been doing. “We’re excited for our subscription boxes and will be announcing a new theme soon,” she says.

Lightroom Bookstore

For Aashti, who runs Lightroom Bookstore with one other person to help, things have been busy so far. “We’re just whirling around at the moment, literally taking each day as it comes,” she says, adding, “We’re waiting for the pandemic to unfold before making any big decisions.” 

All the bookstore owners are confident of the future though. According to Krishna, Bengaluru has and will always have a culture of independent and second-hand bookstores.

“There’s a sense of discovery every time you enter a bookstore, there’s something special about interacting with the people who work there, hearing what they recommend, and stumbling upon a book you’ve always wanted to read,” adds Radhika.  

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