Fourteen or 15 years ago, my cousin and I rifled through the stacks of books on the floor of Broadway Book Centre in Panaji, the capital of Goa, looking for the second instalment of a series whose debut we had grown obsessed with. We had been dropped off by whichever parent was saddled with chauffeuring and we had a couple of hours ahead of us before they’d arrive insisting we needed to leave immediately.
We hurriedly scoured the vast space where authors and genres and eras were muddled together to enable the sort of treasure hunt I can only now find in a second-hand bookstore or a guesthouse bookshelf outfitted with the discards of random, travelling strangers. We found our book in one of the piles, the second to last from the floor, and not a single other book from the series. I wouldn’t classify it as fate, but to two girls heavily invested in Ann Brasher’s The Sisterhood of The Travelling Pants, finding The Second Summer was the greatest piece of fun.
Broadway’s different now. As am I. Here to interview the man who allowed me and numerous others to read quietly in his space, I wander through the sections, better organised and labelled now. It’s nothing like the profoundly well-stocked walls of a bookstore in Delhi that I love or remotely like the carefully curated shop in that city whose book recommendations I enjoy.
With Covid-19 still surging through the state, there are even fewer people here than usual. “We see less than half the number of people that used to come before Covid,” Khalil Ahmed, the establishment’s owner, told me from behind his mask, a few feet away. He seemed unworried, stepping away from our conversation intermittently to bill a customer or answer a question about where one can find a particular kind of book.
Perhaps, he’s sanguine because he’s been in the business a long time. Forty-five years ago, he was working as the local representative for UBS Publishers, organising book exhibitions around the state. After a couple of years working a similar job in the Gulf, encouraged by his spouse, he struck out on his own hosting exhibitions, filling out large venues such as the Menezes Braganza Hall.
Later, he moved from one rented shop space to another in Panjim, until 18 years ago, he found himself in the spot where he and I are standing. Ahmed rented out what had previously been a state archaeological museum to house his collection of books between exhibitions. But the godown in the quiet, nondescript Rizvi Tower, ended up as one of the largest bookstores in Goa, selling books at a minimum discount of 10%-15%, and supplying to local school, college and 12 state libraries.
The store shut for six weeks between the end of March and the beginning of May during a mandatory lockdown. Though they have been open for several months since then, customers have been slow to return in the time of Covid. Necessity has brought some students in search of textbooks and parents on the lookout for books for their children, but the sale of general fiction has fallen drastically in recent months.
Even after the state has been opened up to tourists, the store hasn’t seen much of an increase in visitors. Last month, Ahmed shut a second Broadway outlet in Panjim’s Caculo Mall, after the high rent became unfeasible as people continued to avoid crowded places due to the risk of infection.
For several years, the store has had a dedicated second-hand section, with paperbacks priced at Rs 100 or Rs 200. I make a beeline for it every time I visit the store. Ahmed sources second-hand shipments from a distributor in Kerala (he says there are no local distributors). Often, these mixed containers are from England, bought in bulk and hence sold relatively cheap to the customer.
During the pandemic, as sales waned, the store expanded its Rs 100-to-Rs 200 sub-section to include heavily discounted hardback fiction, coffee table books, illustrated dictionaries and old issues of Granta. Books by Reader’s Digest, BBC and Hamlyn, such as David Attenborough’s Life On Earth and Nefzawi’s The Perfumed Garden (adapted from the Burton translation by Philip Dunn) are marked down to a fifth of their original price. Even in these trying times, Ahmed said, “We want people to keep picking up books.”
Khalil Ahmed has further adjusted to this new reality by starting a stationery and toy store, Take Note, run by his son Fahim, in a residential area of the city. “People don’t want to venture far from their homes,” he said, “that’s why we opened it.” When I ask him why Broadway doesn’t offer these goods, he cites pragmatic reasons concerning GST and a suspicion that parents want to bring their children to a bookstore without the danger of them being distracted by a toy.
Post-Covid, he’s begun to sell on Amazon. Since 2008, Broadway has been publishing books about and by Goans. Till date, they’ve put out nearly 200 titles, some in collaboration with Frederick Noronha’s publishing house Goa 1556, with resident poet Manohar Shetty serving as their editor. In all, Ahmed calculates, the store stocks approximately 450 Goa-centric books.
When he returned to Goa in the mid-’80s, he found there were hardly any books available on the state. He placed an ad in the paper asking interested writers to come forward. The US-based cardiologist Antonio Gomes, amongst several others, turned up at the store with his fiction manuscript, The Sting of Peppercorns, set in a Goa under Portuguese rule.
After review by their readers’ group, it became their first publication. “We know each of our authors personally”, including those who live here and expat writers who drop by when they visit Goa, Ahmed said. He’s also published a handful of local students over the years, whose manuscripts were rejected by other publishers.
One of the store’s major advantages over competitors at present is its unrivalled selection of Goa titles, including non-fiction, novels, guidebooks and children’s literature, which draw both foreign and domestic tourists as well as non-resident Goans. (The store keeps several titles of Goan diaspora literature. ) “Tourists are interested in the history of Goa, flora and fauna, architecture, all things Goa one can say – which has driven our publishing decisions as well,” said Ahmed.
Every three months, he places an order of 500 copies for Joyce Fernandes’ compact Goan Cookbook (originally published in 1984), of which foreign tourists will buy 10 or 20 copies at a time.While in-store sales have been slow because of the reduced influx of out-of-towners, they’ve been steadily selling these in the short time they’ve worked with Amazon.
Ahmed walked me through several books on Goa which are in stock – some familiar, some not. We lament the unavailability of the Goan historian Teresa Albuquerque’s books and he tells me I can borrow a copy from Central Library. He brings out a wonderful children’s book called My Godri Anthology, published by local library trust Bookworm, about one grandmother’s life in Goa in the 1900s, and the quad-lingual Amalia and the Shell Beach that holds four of Goa’s languages: Portuguese, English, Marathi and Konkani. I picked up copies of both. There’s the republished edition, by Broadway, of the late author Margaret Mascarenhas’ debut novel, Skin, in 2010 – a copy of which has long been with me.
“We understand the local reader, their tastes,” Ahmed said, gesturing around his store, which reserves substantial room for fiction and self-help literature, “Every place has its own preferences.” They stock a few bestsellers in Marathi, knowing that more experienced readers seek out stores that stock Marathi literature exclusively. They’ve translated three of Sudha Murthy’s popular books into Marathi and keep a few Portuguese titles they know the occasional reader will ask for.
Kedar Gaunkar, who has worked at Broadway for over a decade, said that aside from in-store sales having reduced because of Covid, government schools and libraries haven’t placed their usual orders this year. But Ahmed waved away my question about whether he’s planning to make changes to his stock to draw more people to the store during the pandemic.“One day, people will come back to bookstores,” he said. “Online, it’s only bestsellers. But here, you can browse for yourself.”
He’s right, of course, about the browsing. Under my arm were six books I’d scouted out from various corners of the store including an out-of-print volume of Salim Ali and S Dillon Ripley’s Handbook of Birds, which retails online for close to Rs 2,000, a second-hand copy of Pat Moon’s The Trouble with Mice for my nephew that I pulled out from the bottom of a tightly packed stack, and two Lisa Gardner crime novels found in separate racks. As I paid up and left, nearly 90 minutes after I first arrived, I noticed the woman who was there before me and who is still sifting through the shelves.
All photographs by Frederick Noronha.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.