My love for books began by listening to my father’s stories. He was unusual in his storytelling, I realised later, because he did not narrate folktales nor read from children’s books. He recalled the books he loved best – complex, exciting books for adults – and wove stories from them, taking me to places I had never heard of.
As I grew older, I visited a second-hand book vendor with my father on the roadside in Mumbai. The young book vendor was very knowledgeable, he could narrate the stories of the popular books and knew what books and authors his customers liked. When I moved to Bangalore I was in awe of second-hand booksellers. So much was available if you had the time to look – and most of the time the process of looking itself was joyous.
“We are storytelling creatures, and as children we acquire language to tell those stories that we have inside us,” says Jerome Bruner, the famous educational psychologist. “The mind that drives science and art,” he says, “is not linear and logical, but narrative”. This resonates with me as I think in stories and imagine the world through stories. Books give me insights into the outside world and into myself.
The idea for Champaca Bookstore, Library and Café started one quiet evening, when I was reading book reviews of Octavia Butler, NK Jemisin, Ursula K Le Guin and Krishna Sobti, all award-winning women authors whose books I didn’t know where to buy. These women are able to raise questions of race, gender, and sexuality through their stellar writing, and imagine a present and a future that is unique and feminine.
I began to dream of a space that would stock such books and have a curated collection of diverse books, where I would find a mix of new and old titles every time I visited, where I could have uninterrupted conversations about books over endless cups of coffee, and where there would not be any music playing in the café, other than birdsong!
I realised early on what I wanted to build: a curated bookstore that looks at diversity carefully and brings in to focus underrepresented authors, themes and ideas; a comfortable cafe with food I would want to eat every day; a free, diverse, well-stocked library for children (currently we have a small, reasonably-priced library, and we run free programs for children, that are subsidised by the bookstore); and a vibrant, warm, safe community of people who would enjoy these things.
While the dream was mine, it became a reality because of many other people – Kavya Murthy, Thejaswi Shivanand are permanent editors and curators at Champaca and have supported this journey from the beginning. Pooja Saxena and Rohini Kejriwal are the reason anybody knows about us.
Nirica Srinivasan joined us as an intern and stayed on as the best possible employee. This is also their story as they continue to shape what we do and how we do it. Even the people who are no longer part of Champaca have left their imprint on the store.
Before it opened
The first step, I told myself, was to read more books. This was the fun, and not-stressful part. Then came the more intimidating part: making budgets and models, meeting publishers and distributors to order books, finding a viable space, finding the right food for the café and finally hiring the right people and opening our doors to customers. After the first step, every subsequent one has been part of a steep learning curve.
Two years before I started Champaca I interned for a few months at Lightroom Bookstore, a beautiful children’s bookstore in Bangalore. Then, after much research, I enrolled in the Library Educator’s Course run by Bookworm Trust in Goa. It is an excellent course for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of children’s books, libraries, curation, and most importantly, how to actively engage children as a library educator.
Through reading, reflection, and discussion, this helped me refine my thoughts about the kind of space I wanted to create, and what books I wanted to stock. The year before I started, I worked as a consultant for an organisation working in environmental education, even as I ran around Bangalore looking for an ideal location for the bookstore, and making increasingly complex Excel sheets. My friends and family were supportive, listened carefully to my single-minded pursuit and gave constant advice.
In January 2019, six months before I opened Champaca, I was at the Delhi Book Fair, living at a friend’s in Pitampura, trekking to the fair every day to meet with publishers and their distributors agents, explaining to them that I was going to open a bookstore. I got many dubious looks, but some people were curious. I sat for a whole day and made my first book order at the Pan Macmillan stall – they were incredibly kind and encouraging. It was a pleasure to see the books in person, as opposed to long Excel sheets with 6,00,000 books at a time.
Champaca is named for Magnolia champaca, the familiar and well-loved tree also known as sampige, golden champak or champa. Our logo represents the flower of the champaca tree, a racket-tailed drongo and a sambar stag – all creatures local to this part of the world.
I worked in wildlife research and community-based conservation before I became a bookseller, and I wanted a part of that world to come with me to this bookstore. Kriti Monga, who designed it, listened to my ramblings and created a wood-cut inspired illustrative symbol evoking the abundance and serene balance of the forest, and a sense of community of the creatures in it.
I was initially apprehensive about the space, small and hidden at the end of a lane, on top of a rickety black staircase. People would not stumble upon us while doing their other shopping, they would have to intentionally seek us – and our books. And once they got here, hopefully they would be enchanted by our lovingly curated selection, the lush avocado tree framing the window, and our delectable food.
Friends have now become permanent curators at the store, and we spend hours together poring over the books. It has always been a collaborative process: we began with an initial set of criteria and a core team of four people with varied interests, and our vision has been further enriched by recommendations from customers, friends, volunteers, interns, making our collection unique, eclectic and diverse. Many other friends and volunteers pitched in during that crucial week before we started, helping us check, enter and arrange the books carefully.
The opening weekend is a blur in my memory punctuated by some images. I fondly recall Arshia Sattar and Mahesh Rao talking about their reading and writing habits, and Arshia presenting us with lilies that bloomed for a whole week. The next day, as the sun streamed in on a beautiful Sunday morning, the store was filled with people painting leaves and playing Pallanguzhi and Uffangali, right after Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli’s illuminating talk on Cities and Canopies. And nothing could make me forget the first Champaca flower that bloomed on the sapling we planted at the centre of the store.
It wasn’t enough to curate and stock these books; we had to also let people know why they were unique. When I look back I am astonished at the number of events we did – almost all of them for free. We like to support independent and creative work by publishers, artists and individuals. We have hosted a series of homegrown conversations on texts that are relevant to our present time titled “Books for Now”, which has discussed, in the past, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Siddalingaiah’s A Word With You, World.
In one year we have featured discussions on topics ranging from the vast internal migration in India (Chinmay Tumbe’s India Moving) to understanding the natural world (TR Shankar Raman’s The Wild Heart of India); featured up-and-coming poetry and fiction from Bangalore authors like Poornima Laxmeswar (Strings Attached) and Priya Balasubramaniam (The Alchemy of Secrets); and hosted events that work on building a local community in Bangalore, through discussions around books like Meera Iyer’s Discovering Bengaluru.
We have also featured independent collectives – local publishers like Reliable Copy and Kokaachi, zine makers, artists, and film collectives like Faraway Originals and Ghost Animation. We have supported local literary weekends, and sell books at cultural events in the city.
I remember the first storm. Our open space with old Mangalorean tiles made us feel closer to the sweet-natured bulbuls singing to us, but it also meant that we were vulnerable to the elements. The storm could have wrecked our haven, but once we ensured the books were safe, and the computers were stored in the kitchen, we enjoyed hot masala chai with our accommodating customers.
As a first-time entrepreneur, the feeling of being responsible for the livelihood of ten people was new to me, and I had many sleepless nights, looking at my accounts and wondering whether we would make it. Sometimes people who were trained by us left to pursue better opportunities, occasionally without giving us any reasons, and this always came as a blow. Since then, I’ve worked hard to create a positive environment and foster a strong, committed team.
In the shadow of Covid
A lot changed in March when we all got thrown into a pandemic – it almost felt like we were all characters in an apocalyptic sci-fi novel. We closed Champaca for the first time since it opened, on March 19, a few days before the national lockdown. It was a time of uncertainty for us, as it was for many small businesses.
We are a small and new bookstore: in March, we were barely 10 months old, we were figuring things out from month to month, and we did not have any buffer. Our priority was to ensure our staff got paid and we were determined to get through this together.
It was during that first lockdown that we launched the gift voucher programme. Our customers could buy a gift voucher, and redeem it anytime through the year with a ten percent discount. The positive response from our community of readers helped us through the vexing early months of the pandemic, enabling us to not only pay our staff but also, crucially, rent for the months of March and April.
When we opened Champaca in June 2019, our focus hinged so strongly on creating an experience around the physical bookstore that we had never imagined launching an online store – and that, too, before the end of our first year. Although standalone shops were permitted to open in May, it was clear that we could not risk the health and safety of either our cherished staff and customers.
Finally, after many sleepless nights spent weighing our scant options, we launched an online store in May this year (thanks to my tech-enabled partner). This was the initial challenge of the pandemic: the realisation that the world had suddenly changed and we would have to adapt as well. Our physical store has been central to our identity. Now we had to imagine possibilities separate from that physical space and, even more distressingly, a future in which those welcoming surroundings might not play an active part in our enterprise – at least for as long as the pandemic held sway. Our online space was built on the same principles as our bookstore, reflecting diversity and thoughtfulness in the selection of books.
Suddenly the whole world was open to us – we could invite any author whom we admired to speak to our online community. In June 2020, we hosted Roxane Gay for a riveting conversation on her writing process, personal narratives, and life on the internet. And we have just launched Reading for Change, an initiative in collaboration with the Bangalore Sustainability Forum and Science Gallery, to discuss the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through books, with acclaimed authors like Angela Saini lined up for the next month.
In June, we turned one, and we took the opportunity to launch our Book Subscription, keeping in mind our goal to continue nurturing our book community. The theme for the first year is translations. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned against the dangers of a single story. Different stories find a home in different languages and cultures, and translations are conduits that offer glimpses into different ways of living. Diverse lived experiences in India are found not necessarily in English but within the textures of regional languages. For those of us who live between one or two languages, translations open up a new world.
We have three-, six- and twelve-month plans. Each month we send out one main book, and most months a companion book as well, with a curation note and bookmarks or postcards. Members of the advanced plans have access to a monthly book club hosted by literary critic Somak Ghoshal, and a Slack channel where we chat about the books and put additional reading prompts for interested people.
The books we sent out are carefully chosen list of titles, from across genres and languages. In the first month, we chose Chandrabati’s Ramayan, translated by Nabaneeta Dev Sen and published by Zubaan, with Lost Loves by Arshia Sattar as the companion book. This month, we are shipping out Cox by Christoph Ransmayr, a book that isn’t available anywhere else right now. We are all enjoying reading the books and discussing them as we go.
What does the future of the bookstore look like?
Ursula K Le Guin said that the role of speculative fiction is to “...dislodge the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live.” These lines expand the possibility of our own lives and also helps us develop empathy, openness and understanding for a different person’s life. This is what stories did for me. Suddenly I saw things differently, and I could not unsee them. And then how could I not want more?
Books have become a pleasure, an escape, a companion in lonely places, a guide and a journey. I cannot underestimate the vital role they have played in preserving my mental health in difficult situations and the joy they have given me in everyday life. This is what I would like to share and this is what independent bookstores can do – be a safe space to access diverse perspectives and different ways of thinking, but also a way to find yourself and your own differentness reflected in the books.
There are many kinds of independent bookstores in India – the streetside book vendor, regional language bookstores, curated bookstores and libraries, travelling bookstores, sprawling three-storey bookstores, bookstores with cafes, bookstores that support theatre and so on – and this freedom and diversity of visions is precious. It must be celebrated, protected and multiplied.
When prestigious literary festivals in India call booksellers from outside India to speak about their experiences, and not anyone within from India despite this wonderful representation, it makes me wonder whether we can all come together to have a stronger voice and support each other.
When large corporations undermine the entire book industry by monopolising it, it makes me wonder if we can find a way for all of us – authors, publishers, distributors, booksellers and book lovers – to speak to each other, not just as individuals, but as a collective.
I don’t know what the future holds for independent bookstores but I believe we have to reimagine not just the “bookstore” but also the “book” and the “store”. The book is explicitly no longer a collection of pages between two thicker pieces of paper – it has exploded into discussions online, fanfiction, art, communities, knitting (and crotchet – a personal fave!) circles… and the bookseller has to follow those journeys, and be able to meaningfully participate, sometimes as an observer and sometimes as a guide.
Similarly, the store as a physical space – a historically difficult economic proposition – is likely to become a space of extreme privilege or an anodyne site of stationery-driven capitalism. How can local bookstores (always in plural) continue to exist and even thrive, going forward? A clear answer might not present itself immediately, but one thing is certain: we are going to continue working hard to preserve the essence of what we have created at Champaca in every way possible.
What do you do when you support and buy from independent bookstores?
In supporting us, you support the time we spend to bring you a creative, thoughtful experience around stories, conversations and books. You support the very hard realities of rents, salaries, and other expenses. In a culture of quick-access and discounted prices, we try to give you the joy of discovery.
In supporting us, you help us bring thought and care to everything we do: from the books we stock on our shelves to the events we host. You help us ensure that it is not just one voice that dominates and allow us to build a community that supports diversity, quality and ideas. In supporting us, you believe, like us, that books are much more than objects to purchase at competitive prices, but gifts we give ourselves to learn and evolve as individuals.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.