Eight indie booksellers in India who are bucking the trend of chain stores

Specialised books, events and interactions, and a whole lot of love are helping their standalone bookshops flourish.

A long, long time ago, when the world was young and so were some of us, all bookstores were independent, family-owned and family run. And if you were a regular reader, chances were that your local bookstore also became part of your family, knew your tastes and recommended new books when they came in (new books were far fewer then, and could actually be kept track of).

Then came the days of the chains with space as we had never imagined, filled with thousands of books one had never heard of and offering more choices in a day than our old bookshops did in a year, and there was much rejoicing. Except that the independent bookshops did not all do so well, especially when located near chains.

But twenty years down the line, the lovely spaces of the chain stores are cluttered with toys, chocolates and watches, and the independent bookshops are roaring back to life. Many stalwarts are now run by second- and third-generation owners, and their resilience and their enduring commitment is cause for celebration.

At a time when everyone was lamenting the imminent death of the physical bookstore and of the physical book as well, there are some folks who have been brave enough (or completely ignorant of these prophecies of doom) to venture into an area that no financial advisor would have recommended. Many of these bookstores specialise in children’s books, an area where I have a vested interest, and are doing fun and innovative things to survive.

One Up Library, Bookstore and Experience Centre, Amritsar

Dalbir Kaur Madan started OneUp in 2011, and her partner Riddhi Sachdev joined in 2013. The idea was, says Dalbir, to create a safe and inviting space for kids, “a space where they could meet interesting character – both real and fictional!”

There is a library filled with fiction and educational resources. The experience centre invites authors and speakers from Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to run events and workshops, so that kids in Amritsar get the chance to meet diverse creative people. One Up also runs a school programme which sets up libraries and trains teachers with literacy programmes.

The fun part, says Dalbir, is that every day is a ferris wheel that we ride with our young members – from read-aloud sessions, reading games, club discussions , every day is filled with adventure and magic. The challenge is to ensure that reading for pleasure  and academics are interpreted as two different aspects of child's learning journey.

S.C.O. 19 District Shopping Complex , B- Block, Ranjeet Avenue, Amritsar 143001

Goobes Book Republic, Bangalore

Ravi Menezes was running a bed and breakfast, a street food operation, and a dabba delivery service. (In the past lay architectural photography and a stint at Disney World in Orlando – “yes, I was a slave to a mouse.”) The bookshop started as a book rack (“a personal indulgence”) budgeted as a guest facility. “We decided on opening the store to cover the loss in income for the B&B in 2008.”

“A friend of mine (who runs a B&B and a pancake house in the Netherlands) was visiting while I was considering 200 boxes of junk books. He offered to spring for the cost of the books, saying that the cost would be the same as a decent pair of shoes back home for him. He was willing to fund it as it was for books.”

From those 200 boxes of junk books, the store has evolved. Along the way, it has lost the romance section, is in the process of losing the pulp fiction section, and focussing on non-fiction, literature and science fiction.  Along the way, Ravi has come to loving books “a little obsessively”.

“I say good night to the books every night when shutting down the store. Running my fingers over them lovingly, I think I have a book fetish. Actually I do have a book fetish, tall book racks are a turn-on as well (seriously). I hug books too.

“The one challenge that we face is that by 2050 the temperature is going to be so high that trees will start to die – the first I think of at this time is that it will not be possible to have any more books, which means my one true love will die; humanity comes next. That is really scary, our job is to do what the Press should be doing making people aware, become more green and actually give a shit about humanity and the world, not just our egotistical self-centered selves.”

11 Church Street, Sheesh Mahal Building, Bangalore.

KoolSkool, Gurgaon

Amit Sarin, an entrepreneur and avid book lover, and Ritu Sarin, formerly a journalist, a teacher and an editor for children's books – she had always dreamt of having her own bookstore – have been friends for over 20 years, and married for six. They set up KoolSkool in Gurgaon in 2011.

“We started out as library suppliers, importing children's books that were not readily available in India for discerning school libraries. Our client schools loved what we picked for them and started inviting us to hold exhibitions for their students and parents,” Ritu said.

“Their support and constant encouragement gave us the strength to take our first nervous step into retail... We decided to stick to what we knew best and devoted the entire store to just children's books. We weren't sure if the concept would work, especially since we stocked it only with what we loved, irrespective of MRP, discount and perceived popularity. A lot of books that you saw everywhere were missing from our store because we just didn't like them enough.”

It has now been four years and there's been no looking back.

“A fun thing that we do as a bookstore are author events in schools. We also have a book reviewers’ club. What we have the most fun doing is selecting new books for the store and the schools. We turn into little kids every time we receive an interesting new catalogue.”

Their challenges? “The greatest challenge before any bookstore today are the policies of online stores and the publishers' unwillingness to take a stand.”

D-3, Qutab Plaza Market, DLF Phase 1, Gurgaon.

Walking BookFairs, Bhubaneshwar

Walking BookFairs was born in January 2014 in Koraput, a tribal district in Odisha. Akshaya Rautaray, who earlier worked in a chain bookstore, and Satabdi Mishra, formerly a copywriter, wanted to take books to people who had little or no access to them.

They put books in a backpack, walked, trekked, took buses, auto rickshaws to various small towns and villages. They displayed books on the roads, bus stops and other such public spaces for everybody to look at.

The travelling bookstore has travelled more than 10,000 km in Odisha with books in a van. Walking BookFairs also has a book-shack in Bhubaneswar, which promotes good books, writers and artists. All books at Walking BookFairs are at a discount all year round. The only staff is the two of them.

The major challenge, says Akshaya, “is that people are not into reading books. A tiny fraction of people actually read books and even a tinier fraction spreads the love of reading around. That is the biggest challenge. It is great to be an independent bookstore.”

Prayas3/4, Kalinga Hospital Square, Bhubaneshwar.

BookVook, Delhi

“Take an excursion, read a book,” says the tagline on the BookVook stationery.

Ankit Agarwal, who worked in exports and stockbroking, and Ritu Agarwal, who was an MBA working in the jewellery sector, set up BookVook because they were both passionate readers. “The lure of a bookstore was like a drug and kept us hooked all the time.”

BookVook started in 2011 in Alaknanda, Delhi, and soon started working with schools. “Our honest endeavors have been recognised by various schools, whom we constantly update with new titles and series that we can unearth and are attached to them through consistent library supplies, book fairs, book introduction sessions and author meets.”

The fun lies in figuring out ways to make children engage with books, says Ankit. “We strive to offer as much variety as possible. Through our visits to the remotest corners of a publisher’s warehouse, numerous conversations with authors and intellectual minds, we take it upon ourselves to discover as much as we can.”

The challenge lies not just in the form of “the online giants creeping in but also with the mindset amongst readers as well as their parents. It’s a constant effort to make people try varied genres and authors.”

“Our readers have somehow not grown out of Jacks and Nancies. But Indian authors today are writing stories closer to thing things we live with on a day to day basis, and we make an effort to encourage people to read them.’

B 3-5-7,  Alakhnanda Market, Opposite Gangotri Apartments, Delhi.

Lightroom Bookhouse, Bangalore

In a quiet neighbourhood in Bangalore, among lots of trees and old houses, lurks the Lightroom Bookstore, which specialises in picture books. It just celebrated its second birthday.

Says Aashti Mudnani, who runs it, “Opening a bookstore for children was in the dreaming and thinking phase for over seven years before we started the store in 2013, when our oldest child was born and we were unable to find the kind of books we would have liked for our children. My husband and I have always enjoyed reading children’s books and used to go hunting for them at Strand book sales and through the stacks of used books at second-hand bookstores. Of course, finding the books we liked was always based on chance! Lightroom started on a shoestring budget – we took all the help offered by friends and family, monetary and otherwise!”

Everything about running a bookstore is fun, says Aashti, so it is hard for her to identify one particular element. Pressed for an answer, she says, “My super colleagues who are willing to do anything that is asked of them!”

“Earlier I used to naively think that our biggest hurdle was the difficulty in getting the kinds of books that we really wanted to get. Now, the realistic and massive challenge we are all facing are online booksellers. Even though people say they like bookstores, they do buy online! We have people call us to ask for a price of a particular book and are aware that they are comparing it with an online seller, but have no choice but to give it!”

1 Lewis Road, Balaji Layout, Cooke Towne, Bangalore.

Kahani Tree, Mumbai

Kahani Tree is a unique little independent children’s bookstore that offers a curated selection of books by publishers from all over India. It was set up in 2006 by Sangeeta Bhansali of Vakils to support books by independent publishers that were simply not available in retail spaces. So, besides promoting them through school bookfairs, Vakils has provided a bookspace at their office in Prabhadevi for people to come by for the vast range of Indian children’s books that are now available.

Kahani Tree organises story-telling sessions, author interactions and literary weeks in schools and bookstores to make children’s stories come alive. “At Kahani Tree, we believe that stories are magical and that a love for books and reading is the best gift we can give children!” Sangeeta said.

“One of the most fun things that I love to do is to tell stories while recommending books to parents and children. And to watch eyes excitedly light up with anticipation to read the rest!  It makes my day when they message back to say how much the book was enjoyed, and then come back for more!”

Industry Manor, 2nd floor, A Marathe Marg, Prabhadevi, Mumbai.

Atta Galatta, Bangalore

Atta Galatta in Koramangala is a bookstore and event space. (There is also fantastic coffee!) Subodh Shankar and Lakshmi Subodh started the shop in April 2012. Lakshmi, who was earlier a copywriter and insurance consultant, says one of their aims is to promote Indian writing in English and other languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi, a place where we think a mature, thinking audience would come for a cup of filter coffee and some good reading.

Atta Galatta offers the experience of books through plays, music, storytelling,  workshops and movies, a place where artistes from various literary and creative backgrounds can come together to share their work, and bring together an audience of like minded people. “The fun part and the challenging part are one and the same. Since we hold a number of events and workshops, we get an opportunity to work with different people. New ideas, new ways of doing things and different styles are what makes it fun. But at the same time we have to cater to people according to very specific requirements, which makes it a challenge for us.”

#134, KHB Colony, 17th H main road, 5th block, Koramangala, Bangalore.

Sayoni Basu is the primary platypus at Duckbill Books, a publisher of books for children and young adults.

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