“Did you know that AA Milne, who wrote Winnie the Pooh, started off as a mystery writer, or that the popular detective writers of the 20th century, from Agatha Christie to Dorothy Sayers and Anthony Berkeley were part of a mystery writer’s club?” asks Shilpa Sudhakar, the founder of Hyderabad’s latest bookstore, Luna Books. There is an entire section devoted to the detective greats, a genre that obviously enthuses the owner.
An avid reader herself (belonging to a family that devours everything from classics to thrillers), the 43-year-old spent 17 years in venture capital before doing the unthinkable: starting a bookstore.
It is Day 7 since the launch of the store, and it certainly is a surprise to see the store teeming with people. Hyderabad, with its behemoth of billionaires (from pharma to IT and real estate) is big on spending on jewellery, luxury cars, and couture, but the fourth largest city in India has only one independent bookstore (Akshara), with a handful of others (Book Point and a couple of Crosswords scattered in malls) fighting for existence.
In the days since its launch, the owner says that the question that was asked the most was this: What made you want to open a bookstore?
The simple answer to this question Shilpa says is that as readers, we needed one. “People who had never met before connected over a book or an author that they liked, animated conversations were had, numbers were exchanged, and connections forged. Others found quiet corners to explore their chosen books, lost to the outer world.” she adds.
Did people caution her against starting one? “The obituary of the physical book was written a decade ago, but did it happen?” she asks and adds, “Bookstores were written off as well but are still surviving. All I received is encouragement from all quarters.”
A city of bibliophiles
Old timers of the city are full of stories of how the deodis of the aristocrats had dedicated libraries. As they lost their hold on power and wealth, these havelis gave way to smaller houses and then apartments which resulted in the residents divesting their book collections due to space constraints.
Till the early 2000s, the city was home to storied bookstores. AA Hussain was one of the best as was Walden in its early days. Others include Gangarams, Kadambi and the excellent Sunday book market for secondhand books, where one could stumble upon early Bantam and Fontana editions of Agatha Christie along with pirated versions of Sidney Sheldon and Harry Potter. The Hyderabad Book Fair (currently in its 35th year) is one of the best in the country, even today and is a source of joy for the city’s readers.
Shilpa has both been a part and patron of the city’s bookstores. As a child she browsed and bought books at all the old haunts When the city’s bookstores started to close, she says that she felt the absence of such spaces.
In June, she was in Bengaluru, which has a vibrant bookstore culture and says, “I did not want to live in a city where they were no bookstores. My husband remarked that I should do something about it and that led to me starting Luna.”
Taking a risk
The name, Luna, translates into “the moon” in Latin, and has a personal connection for the entrepreneur. Her father’s name is Sudhakar, which is one of the names of the moon – given his influence on Shilpa, it is her way of paying homage.
The 2800 square foot store is located in an old bungalow in a charming cul de sac in the tony Jubilee Hills neighbourhood. Shilpa says that she did not make any changes but adapted the home for use. This enables that the store has a cozy lived in look with rows and rows of titles of Indian authors, children’s books, and nonfiction, and more.
A reader all her life, Shilpa says that the thought of starting a bookstore was never on the cards. She doesn’t let the fact that bookstores across the world are facing a reversal in fortunes bother her. “As readers, my family and I felt the absence of such spaces over the years. I believe our cities and neighborhoods need more bookstores. It’s much than a place to buy books, it’s a space where one can discover, browse and stumble into stories they never really knew existed.”
As a place to pause and ponder, Luna ticks all the boxes. The neighborhood is quiet, the interiors are calming, there is no push to purchase, and one can spend time just browsing through the curated collections. In fact, the latter is the USP of the store.
Aasheesh Pittie, bibliophile and author of Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology, a Bibliography calls the space “lovely” and “welcoming” without the distraction of coffee or stationery. “Commercial bookstores go by lists,” he said. “Once you step into Luna, however, it is clear that it is set up by long time readers. The selection is deep and eclectic. Its good to see genres which are not too popular: natural history or books on books. They set you apart from airport bookstores.”
It helps that everyone in Sudhakar’s family is an avid reader. Her parents, sister Sapna along with whom she runs the store, and her husband pitch in with their suggestions in stocking and recommendations to readers. The owner is also taking inputs from readers on titles to stock “I’m making lists all the whole,” said Sudhakar. “That is the job of a bookseller. I can assure anyone who walks in here that they will find something.”
Creating a buzz
The bookstore has virtually come from nowhere. Social media has made the bookstore a must-visit. Something which was only restricted to Pintrest-y cafes and celebrity hangouts is now a sought-after space. Every Instagrammer in the city worth their influence is dropping in and helping with word-of-mouth walk-ins.
Mindful reader – and editor of WOW! Hyderabad Magazine – Ratna Rao Shekar says that great cities are known by their libraries and bookstores. “It is a misnomer that people don’t read or aren’t interested in culture. There is always a market. The beauty of any bookstore is that it allows people to browse, and the beauty of this bookstore is that the owner knows her books,” she said.
Shilpa brings to the bookstore a curated and cultivated air. Her interest in contemporary writing is reflected on the shelves. The curation however can be classified broadly as a combination of one or all of the following: Knowledge (one of the family members have read it), familiarity (with the author’s work), or curiosity (regarding the author or the book).
The owner is clear that she is not engaged in a competition with the online stores or e-book applications. She said, “We cannot compete with online sellers. Also, we want to aid people into discovering new books. Regarding say those who prefer Kindle, I get the convenience of it, but in a post-Covid world where we want to reduce screen-time, I believe people would rather spend on a physical book rather than reading on a gadget. But, the point is that all of us can co-exist.”
Currently focusing only on books, the owner has no plans for a café (there is one in every 250 meters directions from the store, she says) or other paraphernalia (stationery/toys/cards). She is eagerly sourcing recommendations and is keen to expand the pool of writers and add more Hyderabadi authors to the shelves.
Will the early interest translate into sales is something to wait and watch? Shilpa agrees that the early interest is unexpected. “Frankly, we didn’t expect it. But, of course the attention is flattering though it feels a bit premature. I’m confident that readers who step in, will come back, be it a month or a year.”
And when they do, Luna Bookstore will be ready for them.