Half a decade ago, on the recommendation of my traveller-photographer friend, I visited an artsy space in Hauz Khas Village. It was a “pay as you like” walk-in space for communities of artists, writers, travellers, musicians, slam-poets, and so on, called Kunzum Travel Café.

Its founder, Ajay Jain, an author and photographer, started KTC as a private gallery in 2009 when he felt the need to create such a space for selling his works – photographs and books. On day one of its opening, one photograph was sold; however, no sales were made for the next seven months. This forced Jain to rethink the business model.

He discovered that the reason sales were good at his independent shows of photographs in spaces like the Indian Habitat Centre in Delhi was that such places enjoyed a natural footfall. Therefore, in 2010, Jain transformed Kunzum Gallery into Kunzum Travel Café, introducing a pay-as-you-like business model, which he believed would work, based on back-of-the-envelope calculation. And it did.

But like many independently run businesses across the world, the café was shut down during the pandemic. It was devastating for Kunzum lovers like myself, but Jain has bounced back with a new project: he has revamped the Kunzum brand again. This time it’s a chain of bookstores. Its first branch has opened in DLF Mega Mall, Gurgaon, at walking distance from Phase 1 of the Rapid Metro Gurgaon and Delhi Metro’s Sikanderpur metro station. Four more such branches are planned in the National Capital Region.

Jain spoke to Scroll.in about his unusual business model, his rational for getting into bookselling, and more. Excerpts from the interview:

What was it like when you had to close Kunzum Travel Café right after the pandemic? And when you reopened, what made you rebrand Kunzum into a bookstore chain?
Like everybody else, we too were optimistic that the initial lockdown would be for a few months. In this day and age, what can be worse? But as you know, even today, as we speak, there’s an uncertainty in the air.

Sitting at home, all sorts of ideas came to me. Also, within the first year of the pandemic, I published two books. Nikita, a work of fiction, and a book on travel marketing. Because deep within, my foremost ambition has been, and continues to be, to write books and be recognised as an author. It’s not so much about the financial dividends or the fame.

Also, I was trying to build a publishing label under Kunzum. Although all the books I had done so far were my own, I wanted to diversify by getting other authors in. But how would I attract other authors when I was facing distribution challenges myself?

So, first, I had an idea of creating an extended book club sort of thing, but I did some logistical analysis and felt it wouldn’t work. At one stage I even felt, let’s kill the brand and do something totally different. But then I realised that people spend years running a business and they can’t build a brand. And we have a brand in the market. So, I thought, what if I start retailing books and, in the process, I build a distribution channel for my own books.

The bookshop.

Didn’t the thought that bookshops are closing, and that many people seemingly prefer a Kindle over a physical copy, worry you?
“Bookshops are closing, and books are not selling,” that’s what everyone says. To check for myself, I dived in deep and started researching, and found that book sales are not down. Year on year they are going up. Even after the pandemic.

Second, even in a technologically developed society like the US, more than 80% of books are print books and not audio and e-books. And third, whenever I visited bookstores during the pandemic, I saw there wasn’t even space to stand. They were constantly billing books.

But I also realised that business can’t be done as usual. In Delhi, you’ve got popular booksellers like Faqirchand, Bahrisons, and Midland. Globally, bookshops are closing, yes. But some bookshops are doing well, too. Either because of historical and legacy reasons, or because they are in the right place at the right time. So, based on the research that I did, I thought that our model – a new-look Kunzum pivoted from the travel café would surely be a good attraction for book-lovers.

How did you raise the funds?
I decided to go the old-fashioned way. We have invested in the real estate ourselves, we’ve purchased it. We wanted to take the business to a certain financial footing, so I sold some family property and decided to invest in these spaces.

It was not lost on me that when you buy property and use it for your own purpose there is a loss of notional rent, but there is no physical outflow of money either. Once we’re profitable, the profits can be ploughed into taking up more spaces on lease and keep the business running everywhere.

What was your rationale behind selecting these locations?
My focus is on Delhi and NCR, to build a strong presence here. Knowing a geographical region gives you a certain operational efficiency, because the staff and books can be moved quickly from one place to another, and it’s good for brand visibility to have five bookstores in one location – versus five bookstores in five locations. We decided to pick up spaces that are close to the residential hubs. Places where families prefer to visit, which happens to be our purchasing segments.

I saw a shelf of “pre-loved” books.
Pre-loved books come with a rider: you can’t buy them. However, if you buy four new books, you can take one pre-loved book with you. But here’s the clincher: read your pre-loved book and bring it back anytime and exchange it with any other book. You can do it infinitely without having to make a single purchase.

How are the shelves curated?
The idea behind such a diverse portfolio at the bookstore is to inculcate a greater love for reading. I want to make reading more of a habit than it is now. Notionally, we might be suffering a loss by making somebody read a book for free. But let’s not forget that (a) it’s a limited collection and (b) it’s more important that people read. I believe erstwhile active readers have become dormant readers. We would like to make them active readers again. Once that happens, new books will sell automatically. It’s all part of our business idea: our cultural mission. I feel societies, not just in India but globally, that tend to read more are more balanced in their thought process. Their citizens are more culturally aligned and sensitive.

I also found several independent publishers’ books. Are you specially invested in giving them much-needed space compared to the big publishing brands?
Yes. We’re reaching out to indie publishers and telling them that we will give you the shelf space and the prominence. Not only that, but you will also have our space to leverage for your authors, creators, and designers to meet customers. But it’s not about overlooking any other player. I’m saying, give me a good book and we are willing to be a partner in promoting that book. I’m with you.

Many bookstores are overcoming limited physical reach by taking orders online. Will you also be shipping across India?
Yes and no. I would rather encourage people to visit the bookstores. However, if you write to us, we can get those books for you and have them delivered. But I won’t sell online if I don’t need to. We have a website to talk about events and interviews, and to share reading lists. It will not be a full-fledged e-commerce website though, because our idea is to un-tech at Kunzum.

What do you mean?
I’m not advocating letting go of tech. I am only suggesting that we minimise its use at Kunzum. We’re already in a sea, or should I say a desert, of tech. Kunzum is your oasis to take a break from it, because before and after that its use is unavoidable anyway.

Open area for events.

What’s your roadmap?
Our business model is based on learnings from the Kunzum Travel Cafe. It was an exercise in community building. I feel that there are three pillars for a bookshop to get off to a great start: curation, community, and convene. The 3 Cs.

I’ve got professional editors who are curating the lists of books. We’re asking the big brands to get the books that remain underrepresented for us. They have agreed on principle and have assured us that if they’ve published any such book, they will get it for us. Curation is important for a bookstore like ours.

Then, community building. It’s crucial to have a space for creators of all kinds to come together and interact. And authors and readers can connect face-to-face here at Kunzum. I believe that’s the surest way to sell books. Engaging people is the convening aspect, and we’re strongly invested in that.

Using these three pillars, we want to build a pan-India process. The idea is to first build a presence here (in Delhi and NCR), and later figure out whether we want company-owned bookstores or explore the franchise model. A mixed model is also an option. However, I prefer to go the franchise route, as it not only helps us partner with locals who come with their own network, but they also have a great sense of their respective markets. While being a national chain, we don’t want to lose the independent character of a bookstore. Each bookstore should operate as if it is an indie bookstore.