The future of bookshops has been dark and uncertain for a while now. The pandemic makes the dangers all the more imminent. For someone who ran a small independent bookshop for over 30 years in New Delhi, the last few years alone have been particularly difficult. Many booksellers like me had to shut shop because we could no longer afford to pay the rent. Sadly, no amount of love for books could save us.

Yet, anyone who has experience in selling books will tell you that the trade is also a story of survival, which is no stranger to the gloom and doom that pervades every time the economy crashes. Independent bookshops in the past few decades have also fought many pitched battles. They’ve seen the rise of chain bookstores, the onslaught of e-commerce platforms and the emergence of ebooks, and yet the humble neighbourhood bookstore has survived in some form or size.

The book market for the non-educational and non-professional books, as most of you know, is frightfully small in our country. Out of which, sadly, a disproportionate number of readers has already migrated to platforms like Amazon, for the sake of convenience and discounts.

Most booksellers today, however, are worried about what the future holds for retail. Over the years, they have seen the number of walk-ins dwindle, despite efforts by establishments to turn themselves into part cafes and event spaces. Today the coronavirus outbreak threatens to block the entrance of bookshops all together.

Many, because of the pandemic, also continue to remain shut. Those that are open are seeing bare minimum walk-ins, and are mainly operating by mailing books by post to customers, through online and phone orders. This desultory trend is by no means indicative of what the future holds for bookstores; people are merely making most of the current situations – but for how long?

Readers may desert bookshops

During these days in the lockdown, it struck me how handy books can be in the pandemic, apart from allowing readers to enter their worlds. Books come with an in-built mechanism that enforces social distancing. If you pick one up and settle in your favourite chair to read, that pretty much takes care of all social interactions.

In fact, the world of books, on the whole, is a deeply private and quiet one. Whether you’re reading, researching, writing, or editing a book – it is best done when you’re left to your own. It is only when people go out looking for particular books they pose the risk of getting the virus. This is what worries me the most about the future of bookselling – are we about to see people change the way they buy books for good?

If you are a reader who goes for books based only on recommendation, the hype or the reviews, then you may not be affected much. You will always be able to find the books you’re looking for online. But if you are someone like me, for instance, who not only goes looking for a specific book, but is also keen on browsing books, being around them and stumbling upon new writers, then the fate of bookshops will concern you.

With the fear of entering bookshops, many serious readers, I feel, will now be open to exploring ebooks and audiobooks, which are easily available online. Once they take to these formats, they will also no doubt stumble upon book piracy. Now, pirated books have always existed in the country, but they have never posed a threat to bookshops because it has always been restricted to a few bestselling titles. Ebook piracy, however, is like a parallel universe of its own. The book collections you stumble upon are so voluminous that you may never ever find the need to buy a book again.

This, if it happens, I believe, could potentially transform the bookselling industry.

Many people fear that the book trade can also go the way the music industry did, which has seen complete digitisation and the virtual disappearance of the CDs and LPs. Much like how handwritten manuscripts were once pursued by the wealthy, the physical book may just become an object of value for bibliophiles, collectors and the rich investor in the coming future.

Books, of course, have one great advantage over vinyl and CDs – people often buy them for reasons other than reading. While some collect them, others invest in first editions, author-signed copies and commemorative editions. Besides, books are also used to furnish the room and help lend people an air of erudition and gravitas. (Take a look at the number of webinars and Zoom chats today, you’ll find most people like to sit in front of a bookshelf.)

But booksellers have other worries too. Though publishing English language books has come a long way in the last 30 years in the country, we still lack the range, volume and depth of what is published in the West. Our importers have so far managed to wrangle a much reduced price for them, as a result of which, prices of these books are way cheaper here than compared to the rest of the world. This helps us get books on a wide range of subjects, which you are used to seeing in the bookstores.

But to get these books at a reduced price, a certain minimum quantity of imports has to be assured. The price of books is a fragile balance and can be upset by a turmoil in the currency exchange rate, the MRP of books and the ever-increasing rate of freight. If the imports dwindle because of uncertainty in the economy, prices of books can spiral out of control. This, too, could further impact the books that make their way into our bookstores.

Do we want bookshops enough?

Five years ago, when it became public that I was shutting down Fact & Fiction, it became a lovely opportunity to meet and connect with my long lost clientele, who came to pay their final respects to the bookshop. I found many of them reminiscing about the books they had bought at the bookshop and the profound impact it had on them. They also told me how much they missed browsing books and the writers they discovered on my shelves. Many who came with their children, it struck me, used to come to the bookshop as children themselves. It really felt like an eternity had passed.

Today, every time we read or hear about a bookstore closing, we see a deluge of nostalgia flooding our social media timelines. The feeling of heartbrokenness remains for a few days, like a waterlogged road in Delhi during the monsoon, and then it clears away. While we may not know when the pandemic will end, how it will exactly impact the book trade, and how we’ll come out at the other end of this, the future of bookshops will essentially depend on how much we really want them.

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