Though it seems longer, the Atta Galatta Bookstore opened its doors eight years ago in Koramangala, Bangalore. My wife, Lakshmi, like any keen English literature student, had always dreamt of running her own bookstore, which is how the idea germinated. Many thought we were crazy when we chose to limit Atta Galatta to housing Indian writing in English and regional-language books. But our goal was to create a platform that showcased and celebrated the treasure trove of Indian writing.

Seeing Indian books on the shelves triggers a sense of nostalgia among readers and we wanted Atta Galatta to celebrate that sentiment. The general lack of such content in large bookstore chains made it more important for us to support regional publishers who are wobbling on the precipice of becoming obsolete. Lakshmi and I wanted the bookstore to engender a sense of identity and belonging and create a community space for like-minded individuals to read, explore, and discover books they may have never encountered otherwise.

A community of readers

We were lucky in our initial years, because now Atta Galatta has become more than just a bookstore. The footfall of customers organically grew through word-of-mouth. College students would sit in our store to study and would drag their friends along; people would come in search of books in Tamil or Bengali; and many among the influx of new people would end up becoming regular customers.

The community of readers was integral to the existence of the store just as we were an important place for them to congregate. We curated selections with help of our loving community, who would generously give us their time and expertise to list books that we needed to add to the shelves. With their help, we expanded our collection of poetry, literary fiction, selected non-fiction, and a wide range of children’s books, all by Indian publishers. Our symbiotic relationship with the bookstore visitors and reading aficionados is almost solely to thank for the unique selection we house.

Pre-pandemic (a now accepted measurement of time), a small indie bookstore like ours sold books broadly by three methods: The first was by creating a personalised buying experience for our customers. Our staff, Lakshmi, and I would spend time talking to people about books, getting to know them, and helping them with their book choices.

Our community would be quick to help us in any way possible, with the regulars jumping in to guide new visitors through the shelves and rushing to tell us the latest news about books, festivals, and awards. Almost every Saturday, a college student would walk into our store bubbling about a new release or the latest Booker Prize winner allowing us to keep up with the trends which our customers appreciated just as much.

Our second and equally important way of reaching out to our customers was through author events. We would host an average of five to six sessions every month with the support of publishers. These events would feature book signings, interactive sessions, question-and-answer segments, and more, and we’d sell the author’s books for them.

Our third and biggest avenue was the sales at annual literature festivals. We became the official bookstore partner for the Bangalore Literature Festival, in which authors from around the world were invited to Namma Bengaluru – our city. This initiative gradually grew and we ended up organising pop-up bookstores and libraries for other festivals too.

Then in 2016, Atta Galatta started its very own festival. Lakshmi and I founded the now-popular Bengaluru Poetry Festival, which gives equal representation to the poets and poetry lovers in the city. We’ve just completed five successful editions which featured over 300 poets, musicians, artists, lyricists, and performers, with the latest edition being conducted digitally in the middle of the pandemic.

In the past five years, we’ve been surprised by how quickly throngs of poetry lovers have joined our community, faithfully waiting for our schedule to be announced every year, and attending the festival en-masse. The volume of books we’d managed to sell during these festivals was more than any sales during the rest of the year.

Total disruption

However, in light of recent events, all of this has come to a grinding halt.

As a brick-and-mortar bookstore, we’ve always focused on the offline experience – the people and the physical community around books. The past eight years have taught us that the human connections we have made over books are incredibly strong. We’ve resisted the urge to go digital because we felt our essence would be lost.

Lakshmi and I started Atta Galatta to fulfil the passion of creating a space where we’d grow old together, surrounded by books, and it would have killed our spirit to force a transition to a cold, half-hearted online platform. Words like “online fatigue” and “overwhelming choices” are already being thrown around, and we felt the core of our bookstore would have been squelched by the unfeeling, all-seeing internet.

We did, indeed, try and push some books with a 50 per cent sale – the first time in our existence. People would call in with requests and we would package and deliver the books to them. The response was overwhelming. Within the first month, we sold five times the volume that we expect in a normal month, but it was sold entirely to a handful of our regulars. It’s hard to tell if they were simply coming together as a community to support us through the pandemic or if it was a genuine increase in book sales because of the pandemic. But less than ten per cent of these customers were people whom we did not already know.

We have made the conscious decision to sit the pandemic out – a tough decision, but an important one nevertheless. We’ve decided to use this time to move into a new space. We’ve hedged our bets that this is as good a time as any to take a break from our regular operations, and we will be in business again in our new store by the end of the year.

The great illusion

Now comes the crux of the problem: The industry has been talking about how the current book sales are more or less the same as the pre-pandemic numbers. The truth is we don’t have access to the raw empirical data, but sheer evidence makes me believe otherwise. I’ve visited other bookstores in Bengaluru during the pandemic and I didn’t see any of the usual footfalls. The problem with saying that sales are the same is hidden in the math. The publishing industry, even pre-pandemic, never actually tracked secondary sales from indie-bookstores like ours.

They would keep track of what was shipped to distributor warehouses or to Cloudtail (the Amazon marketplace) or Flipkart. But, in reality, this is a business where credit for purchases extends up to 60 days or possibly even more, and the gentle nature of the business means excess credit is provided very easily. Unsold inventory sent back to distributors is received in a leisurely manner. Unfortunately, this means that publishers are missing a crucial piece of data. They get no insight into whether the books have actually reached the hands of readers.

Perhaps only the major publishers have an on-the-ground sales team. That leads to a narrow understanding in the industry of the secondary sales in bookstores, which too are limited to metro cities. Even in the organised publishing world, the mid- to smaller publishers have zero visibility about secondary sales. They are completely dependent on their distributors for data, and even though I don’t wish to mention names, I know that this data is not forthcoming. This is not because of any mal-intent, but because this is the leisurely pace at which publishers, distributors, and real-world bookstores such as ours operate.

So, what if these books are just sitting in warehouses gathering dust during the pandemic? Does that truly count as book sales? To me, an old-fashioned bookseller, a book is only sold when it is in the hand of the reader and on its way to a cozy bookshelf. The stock of 12,500 books at Atta Galatta simply cannot be considered sold books.

The question in my mind is: have online sales really increased by a high enough order of magnitude to cover the lack of physical sales in bookstores? This begs a fundamental question of customer behaviour. In my experience, the people who walked into old-fashioned bookstores in the past did it for the experience of physically holding a book, smelling it, and flipping through the pages before they bought it. Have they simply transformed into cold online buyers as the numbers seem to suggest? I would bet my business that they haven’t.

If so, what is this rosy picture of increased book sales that people are portraying? Is it just wishful thinking?

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