It’s a strange time for the books industry.

On the one hand, social distancing, ushered in by the outbreak of COVID-19, has renewed our appreciation for books, trusty companions whom many of us had grown distant from in an age of busy schedules, information overload, and short attention spans. Now, under lockdown, when capitalist time has been disrupted and varying degrees of existential dread mark our days, people seem to be reaching for books like never before – sometimes with the resolute aim of better understanding the present moment, sometimes in the desperate hope of getting away from it.

However, even as reading seems to be on the upswing, brick-and-mortar bookstores across the country were, by and large, been shut for the duration of this lockdown, with books being excluded from the central government’s list of essential items. The only exceptions were bookstores in Kerala, allowed by the state government to remain open for two days a week, and shops selling textbooks for students. Bookshops in other cities slowly came back to limited life in the third phase of the lockdown, though primarily restricting themselves to deliveries.

Still, independent bookstores are likely to be hit particularly hard, since they are not owned by large corporations as part of a chain and therefore have relatively limited financial reserves. To find out more about how the current lockdown has affected independent bookstores, I spoke to the owners and/or managers of five such stores in Delhi, each of which has, for the city’s bourgeois reading public, become synonymous with Delhi itself: The Bookshop, Bahrisons Booksellers, May Day Bookstore, Full Circle Bookstore, and Midland Book Shop.

Immediate and long-term effects

Independent bookselling is not a hugely profitable business to begin with, and times of crisis only further strain booksellers’ resources. With bookstore operations on hold, no sales took place during the lockdown, but overhead expenses such as rent and employee salaries needed to be covered. (At the time of writing this article, all the bookstores’ staff had been retained without any salary cuts.) These expenses require the bookstores to draw on their savings, which they said would last them for some time. However, the matter of just how long is uncertain – much like the future itself.

Uncertainty about the future was a recurring theme in my conversations with the booksellers; all five of them echoed some version of “it’s too soon to tell” with regard to different aspects of the business. While each of them mentioned having loyal customers who claim to be eagerly awaiting the reopening of their bookstore, there is no guarantee that the demand for books will be at least as robust as it was before the lockdown.

Sonal Narain of The Bookshop, located in Jor Bagh Market, said that although she cannot predict how much people and their spending priorities will be impacted by the lockdown, she has noticed a pattern over the last couple of years: “Ever since the current government was elected, it has been one thing after another (demonetisation, GST, the Pulwama attack, now the lockdown), and whenever there is such uncertainty in society, people tend to spend less, and books, too, fall down on people’s list of priorities.”

Discussing a further aspect of unpredictable consumer behaviour, Rajni Malhotra of Bahrisons Booksellers, which has branches in Khan Market, Saket, and Galleria Market (Gurgaon), said that when the lockdown lifts, people could be either dying to go to a bookstore or deathly afraid of visiting one and might therefore prefer to have books delivered to them. But delivery, too, poses a challenge.

Mayday Bookstore
Mayday Bookstore

First, with supply chains all over the world being suspended, there is the issue of bookstores themselves receiving books from various publishers and distributors, including those overseas. The second delivery-related issue pertains to the difficulty of delivering books to customers. Sudhanva Deshpande of May Day Bookstore in Shadipur quoted his courier as saying that it is likely to take at least three or four weeks for the courier business to resume smooth functioning, since millions of packages are stuck across the country.

“And how long is it going to be before people feel confident enough to get a package home?” Deshpande added. “We’ve seen cases where those making deliveries have been attacked or barred from entry by housing societies, so it isn’t just a question of the lockdown being formally lifted.”

Moreover, it seems that the business of publishing and not just bookselling will be severely affected by the lockdown, especially small presses who, like independent bookstores, presumably have smaller savings. Deshpande, who is also the managing editor of LeftWord Books, a Marxist publishing house of which May Day Bookstore is an enterprise, explained, “For small publishers like us who struggle even to get our books in bookshops, serious returns on a book only appear six to nine months after it is published. The returns we get immediately are those earned through online sales, but these numbers are not huge for us.”

Explaining the flow of cash, Deshpande added, “Most of our revenue comes from traditional means of selling–physical store-selling, selling to libraries, institutional sales – but while we wait for it to arrive, we have to keep making payments to printers, binders, paper merchants, etc. All the small publishers I have spoken to are saying the same thing: given the economic downturn, once the lockdown lifts, the people we take services from are going to ask for payments in an even shorter period than was previously the case. Simultaneously, the process of us getting payments from the market is going to lengthen even more. I don’t know what this is going to mean for us.”

Responding to the crisis, and a question: Are books essential?

Unable as they are to deliver books, there is very little the bookstores can do to make lemonade out of lockdown lemons. Even those that have online services, as is the case with Bahrisons, May Day, and Full Circle Bookstore, while still accepting orders, cannot fulfil them until they can resume their delivery services.

Despite this, all the booksellers are determined to stay connected to their customers and well-wishers, as evinced by their active social media pages. Priyanka Malhotra of Full Circle, located in Khan Market and Greater Kailash I, spoke of her attempts to “keep engagement alive” in “small and special ways”: online book recommendations, author readings, and creative collaborations. This is reflective of a larger shift across numerous industries: adapting to the times, promotional activities, which have had an online component for quite sometime, are now taking place almost exclusively online.

Full Circle Bookstore
Full Circle Bookstore

For instance, May Day Bookstore, which hosts its flagship event – a celebration of workers’ rights – every year on May Day, was forced to host it online this time around. Although this meant that performers from Lebanon, Venezuela, Brazil, and the US were able to participate alongside performers from India, the event will, unlike in previous years, struggle to play a significant role in increasing summer footfall at the bookstore.

In addition to cultivating an active social media presence, Bahrisons tied up with Little Black Book to create a gift voucher, but Bahrisons’ Malhotra seemed certain that online purchases are no substitute for the unique experience of browsing at a bookstore. Interestingly, she was also the only bookseller to comment on the subject of publishers making e-versions of their books freely available online. “It might be good for the author in the short run,” she said, “but I don’t know how it can be good for the publisher’s sales. It will hurt bookselling in the long run. It seems like a lot of people are doing a lot of things to cope without really thinking them through.”

Taking a completely different approach, Mirza Tauseef Baig of Midland Book Shop, which has branches in Aurobindo Market, South Extension I, Janpath, and DLF Phase 1 (Gurgaon), wrote a letter to the Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, Manish Sisodia, requesting him to follow the Kerala government’s example and allow bookstores to operate during the weekends. In his letter, Baig stated that “lots of people have an unquenched thirst for knowledge/books as some have for food and other necessities.” Reading, he believes, is a productive and hopeful activity that should be fostered during this difficult time of isolation. The letter, which was sent to Sisodia in mid-April did not get a response. However, soon afterwards, Midland was able to open because it also sells textbooks.

Midland Bookshop
Midland Bookshop

The Bookshop’s Narain is more sceptical about the chances of terming books as essentials. Admitting that her bookstore, which has weathered several storms such as the Emergency of the 1970s and the anti-Sikh riots of the 1980s (the founder, KD Singh, was a Sikh), might be more fortunate than some others who have opened shop relatively recently, she said, “In a country like India where more than half our population is fighting for basic livelihood, I would say there are more important priorities [than books]. If we [India] can put all our resources into delivering food and medical supplies, then that in itself would be great. At the end of the day, books remain a luxury. As much as we all might be in trouble, we must have perspective on where the larger part of the trouble is. We will survive, but there are a lot of people who won’t, and that is the essential part of it.”

Bookstores and “the new normal”

Towards the end of my conversations with the booksellers, I wondered aloud, perhaps naively, about the future of bookstores. With increasing sections of the reading population turning to e-books, will bookstores retain their significance in the post-coronavirus world?

Baig of Midland is confident in his belief that we, as humans, are designed to talk – give and get guidance – and not just buy things. He says that most people who walk into his store do not come with a clear vision of what book they want to buy. Sometimes they will ask for recommendations; other times, unable to remember the name of the book they want, they will share clues like the colour of the cover and Baig will find the right book for them. It is this “guessing game” that he has missed most.

Emphasising human beings’ learned behaviours over their natural tendencies, Malhotra of Full Circle thinks that things being as they are, people will perhaps begin to value community living. Being away from one another and on our screens all day seems to have resulted in the recognition that the physical interactions and social relationships we formerly took for granted are indeed important. “Maybe this will mean that people will want to visit places of community,” she said, “and bookstores are such places.”

The Bookshop’s Narain shares this belief. Having previously heard naysayers ring the death knell of the bookstore with the advent of the Kindle, Amazon, and, before that, Flipkart, she says that if there is a new normal, printed books will very much be a part of it. (As Thomas Abraham, managing director of Hachette India, recently reminded us, the total number of e-books comes nowhere close to matching the total number of printed books in the world.)

If they are not, it will not be due to a lack of readership but rather on account of government policies that give an unfair advantage to e-retailers by not limiting – by means of something like the Lang Law in France – the discounts they can provide on the books they sell online. Seemingly making a plea on behalf of independent bookstores everywhere, Narain says, “If there is one thing I would like to convey to people it is that, if you can afford to, don’t go online looking for discounts at this time. Jeff Bezos doesn’t need your money, but bookshops need you for their survival and you need them for community.”

Manjari Sahay is the Book Club & Library Associate at Belongg.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.