In January 2015, I moved back to India after living in Silicon Valley for a decade. I had left as a student and returned a full-fledged adult with a three-year-old in tow. Naturally, my priorities revolved around my child. One of my primary concerns about moving back was my child’s development. But, as the perks of the Indian lifestyle became clear to us, we gradually settled down and so did my apprehensions.

The one thing my child and I both sorely missed was a children’s bookstore. Back in the US, we used to frequent neighbourhood bookshops, especially to attend weekly storytelling sessions, community events, and to talk to the knowledgeable booksellers. In Gurgaon, the options for these were non-existent. We tried to go to libraries in Delhi but couldn’t keep up the frequency of these visits. Also, we found the latest illustrated books hard to come by.

Everyone stocked books by Julia Donaldson and Eric Carle, but the world of picture books is so vast and diverse that every library visit left us underwhelmed. We were growing used to the hours of research for finding books, being self-reliant, and making do with the less-than-perfect condition in which books came through online sellers, when we discovered KoolSkool.

Cool curators

Packed into small quarters, KoolSkool is a highly curated bookstore for children. While the initial appearance of the store is small, they also have a healthy selection for adults and young adults and it’s hard to find a title that isn’t available with them.

Ritu Vaishnav and Amit Sarin, the co-founders of KoolSkool, have extensive knowledge of children’s books. Avid readers themselves, they have spent the better part of the past decade coming up with new ways to increase the availability of high-quality books for children in India. A significant part of their day goes in reading new titles, scanning catalogues from publishers, and researching literary trends across the world. Amit, who has an instinctive eye for what young children want to read, was one of the first booksellers to recommend the now-bestselling series by Chris Colfer, The Land of Stories, in 2014 when most middle-schoolers were still fixated on Harry Potter.

One of the key initiatives of KoolSkool was to partner with the city’s top-tier schools as their library curator and book fair partner. School librarians regularly consult KoolSkool on which books to order and which ones to recommend to students.

The art of recommending books is subtle. You cannot simply look at the recommended age on the back of a book. The nuances of language, the maturity of the child, and their reading-level have to be considered. Ritu and Amit have honed this skill through years of spending time with children and talking to them about their reading interests.

Ritu Vaishnav and Amit Sarin

Experiments and innovation

When it opened its doors in 2011, KoolSkool was a risky experiment and its founders weren’t sure how long they’d be able to carry on for. However, after nearly a decade of not just surviving but also bucking market trends by thriving, the store had proved itself a worthy player in the books business.

To reach a wider audience, KoolSkool started its monthly book subscription programme – Send Me a Story. Rather than a cookie-cutter approach, the programme uses a detailed form that all subscribers must fill-out in order to sign up. The team then analyses patterns and connections in their reading behaviour to curate books for individual subscribers. Unlike other such models, no two subscribers of Send Me a Story get the same book.

I was perhaps one of the very first subscribers to this programme. I bought a year-long subscription for my son on his birthday and the KoolSkool team even created a special birthday card for him. As clichéd as it sounds, nothing makes the team happier than the happiness of their tiny readers.

They routinely conducted author workshops, organised authors’ visits to schools, and turned many such events into day-long celebrations of books and writers. Some of the most memorable sessions were with Jeffrey Archer, Yann Martel, Jeff Kinney, Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murty, Deepak Dalal, Roopa Pai, Lucy Hawking, and, debut novelist, PG Bell. The release event for the latest book in the Harry Potter universe – The Cursed Child – saw more than a hundred participants, including adults and young children. Every year, Roald Dahl Day is celebrated with freebies, quizzes, and costume competitions. The excitement on the children’s faces during these events is palpable.

New year, new plans

Towards the end of 2019, when my youngest child turned three, I found myself with some time on my hands. On one of our visits, Amit and Ritu shared their plans for the expansion of the store. They wanted to double the space with a mezzanine to boot. As a parent and a voracious reader, the possibility of a large children’s bookstore with a healthy event calendar seemed very exciting. I began suggesting ideas on different aspects of the store and, soon, we were discussing how I could be a more active part of this project.

It took months of hard work to finalise the new layout and the accompanying details of the store. We decided how the new space would look, the primary colours, designed a new logo and all the little collaterals. We had hoped the expansion would give us the space to showcase more books. With over 25,000 titles already, the store was unable to display the books properly in the existing space. The new layout and wider area would also allow us to host more events and workshops for children.

We were about to hand over the project to the contractor when the pandemic struck. Everything came to a grinding halt. Conversations about books and store design turned into discussions on new kinds of fear. Fear of the contagion. Fear of stepping out of the home. Fear of touching any surface. Fear of how the virus could wreak havoc on our lives and livelihoods.

Schools began shutting down in the middle of March – usually the busiest time of the year for KoolSkool. We were heavily stocked and gearing up for a month full of book fairs. Just as we were trying to get back on our feet, we started receiving one apologetic phone call after another from schools informing us they were cancelling the scheduled events. None of them gave us tentative new dates. Forced into hibernation during our most crucial month, we realised that normal as we knew it had changed.

The first month proved extremely difficult. Despite no running income, we had to honour our commitments to pay rent, EMIs, salaries, bills, and taxes.

To complicate matters further, the government was coming out with new guidelines on an almost daily basis with little clarity on when, for how long – and whether at all – bookstores and markets could open. Clearly, we were low priority even though children were confined in their homes with no access to their friends, playgrounds, and schools. Parents desperately needed books to keep their children engaged indoors, something the powers that be failed to consider.

With a heavy heart, we have had to put our expansion and renovation plans on hold as we don’t know when the markets will go back to normal. A great deal of our revenue came through schools and has also closed off. However, we refused to let go of any of our staff and continued to pay their salaries. Sadly, once the lockdown ended and railway services resumed, most of our staff understandably left for their hometowns and villages. We have been functioning with skeletal staff, with each individual carrying out the duties of at least three.

Learning to survive

The learning curve for the KoolSkool team during the pandemic has been steep. We have been working relentlessly over the last three months, adapting as a digital bookstore, tagging and categorising titles on our website, making it as customer-friendly as possible, and putting new systems and checks in place. Like many other businesses, we too started home deliveries to make books available to those who cannot or do not wish to step out.

Being an online business means we do not have to rely on walk-ins to reach new customers. We can now reach readers across the country. No longer restricted by our physical space, we are able to showcase a greater number and variety of books. In the past few months, school bookfairs and sessions with authors too have moved online. We have already hosted a few and there are more in the pipeline.

While the experience is clearly not the same as physical events, in the new reality, this is the best one can offer and these initiatives too are evolving rapidly. We are content with our achievements in the last three months but there’s a long way to go and the normal, as we knew it, is still a distant dream.

When Amit and Ritu started this bookstore, they wanted to create a space with the best books from across the world for children and parents alike, with a special emphasis on new authors and hidden literary gems. The idea was to build a community of readers who would value children’s books and view a children’s bookstore as an essential space, a playground for their growing imagination. Although the COVID-19 pandemic shook our roots, it also brought with it opportunities to look beyond the “normal”.

And so, we march on knowing that our books, our skills of curation, and our services are appreciated across the country, giving us hope that we will be able to survive the pandemic.

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