“If you don’t actively look for a bookstore, you won’t find it,” laughed the owner of Hyderabad’s only independent bookstore Lakshmi Myneni. A former government officer, the 63-year-old along with a close relative, Ashok Kumar, founded Akshara Bookstore in 1997.

Growing up in Visakhapatnam, Myneni was an avid reader of both Telugu and English literature, but reading took a backseat as family and career took precedence. When she opted for a voluntary retirement scheme in the late ’90s, she was on the lookout for something more than just another job, and when there was a chance to reignite her old love for books through a store, she took it up in a heartbeat.

Today, it remains the last surviving standalone bookstore in a city with a population of 68.1 lakh people (as per the 2011 census). The pandemic has crashed its carefully built-up business, but as the store embraces the newer realities of life, it is determined to make its mark in the new normal.

Kumar recalled, “When we started Akshara, the city already had well-established and reputed bookstores like Walden and AA Hussain. In fact, many people questioned the location, which was a relatively less populated locality of Banjara Hills back then, but I was paying Rs 14 per square foot per month, saving money which I could then use for other purposes.”

The bookstore started stocking classics, fiction, non-fiction, children’s reading material and historical fiction. Telugu literature (though in a limited range) has always found a space here. Myneni recalled, “The reading culture was picking up thanks to the software boom. We used to sell a lot of IT and general management books too.”

What helped the store cement its status was its popular “Meet the author” sessions, held at regular intervals. Author Manjula Padmanabhan (who had just won laurels for her book Harvest) was the guest at the first anniversary, while some of the most popular Indian authors of the day including VS Naipaul, Khushwant Singh, RK Lakshman, and Anita Nair, among others, dropped in to promote their books.

Myneni said, “Authors then were shrouded in mystery. Today media, especially social media, ensures that no one is an enigma, but back then people had little access to authors except for their work. These events resulted in a huge buzz as people could meet their favourite writers.”

The audience at a meet-the-author session.

It helped that Kumar also ran a bookstore in Vijayawada and was a distributor for Penguin. “In 1994, I was one of the four representatives invited by the UK government to understand the book trade,” he said. “It was there that I saw how meet-the-author programmes helped build brands and ensure a sustained clientele.”

The store localised these events to huge success and created a steady following of patrons. After initially trying to expand into stationery, Akshara gave it up to focus solely on books. What worked for Akshara was a loyal clientele – which included the likes of former RBI governor YV Reddy and economist BPR Vithal – and staff. The store’s first employee, Kavitha, still works with Akshara and knows all the regular visitors as well as their reading preferences. Many who used to frequent the store as children are now back with their own children, she said.

An era of change

In 2006 that the store found itself on the road literally as it was evicted by the municipality almost overnight. The next couple of years were tough as it changed locations three or four times and had to rebuild from scratch. “Just as we were settling down and stopped making losses, we had to start over,” said Myneni. “It was a very difficult transition.”

After moving locations multiple times, the store finally found a permanent place in 2013 as the Mynenis bought a home in the tony Jubilee Hills area and converted the ground floor into a 1400-square-foot store. Akshara finally had a home.

“It made sense at every level.” Myneni said. “We saved on what was our biggest expenditure, rent, and cut down on overheads like commuting. It also enabled me to spend more time at the store.”

The first floor of the building came with a sit-out area with an abundance of jackfruit and mango trees, which is an ideal spot to host visiting authors, since it can comfortably seat around 80 people. I interviewed millennial favourite Savi Sharma here in February this year, where teeming crowds of teenagers quoted lines from her books to the author!

The store finally seemed to have got its mojo. Rent-free premises, author meets to boost sales and walk-ins, a small but reliable staff (just three people, two of whom have been there since the inception) and a steady customer base in the form of a few schools and institutions resulted in stability.

Owner Lakshmi Myneni.

After all these years, said Myneni, she could measure success in the form of not making losses. “Sometimes I’m grateful that this isn’t the source of my bread and butter. I don’t know how we would have pulled it off if this was our only source of income, or if my husband didn’t have a job.”

At a time when local bookstores are being looked at as institutions just as important as hospitals and schools, Akshara was now a flag-bearer for how small businesses built on passion and hard work can thrive. But then, in March this year, the coronavirus came calling, turning every survival trick learnt in the last two decades on its head.

Co-existing with Covid-19

Akshara was planning to host summer events and stocking up on children’s books when the lockdown was imposed in March 2020. The pandemic ensured that the store remained closed for nearly five months, a first in its journey of over two decades, leading to zero sales and revenue. As Myneni said, “Initially the concern was about the health and safety of family and staff. My husband left town just a day before the lockdown and could return only after 70 days. It was a difficult period.”

After a week or so, regular customers started calling to ask whether contactless sale was feasible, and Akshara began to explore ways to make this possible. While online stores couldn’t deliver books at this time, local bookstores came to the rescue of book lovers. Akshara’s loyal clientele ordered books over the phone. These were kept outside the store, and paid for online.

Not that this compensated significantly for lost sales. However, now that Akshara is slowly but steadily getting back on its feet, Myneni isn’t as perturbed by Covid-19 as might be expected. “We fended off so many challenges over the years,” she said. “In the mid-2000s it was malls, as people preferred to shop under one roof rather than go from store to store. Then, it was online sellers who give discounts of up to thirty percent, which is remarkable by any standard. Now, it is Covid.”

It is precisely its small-scale operations that have helped the store tide over their crisis. Minimal staff, no rentals and quick thinking, like introducing free delivery services to regular clients in nearby areas came to their rescue. As it reopened its doors cautiously last month after a sanitation drive, footfalls are a fraction of pre-pandemic times and the store is keeping its fingers crossed for the future.

In the initial days after Akshara opened, there was a buzz as regulars indulged in large purchases, but currently the sales are half of what they were before March. While institutional sales have picked up since late August, retail has been badly hit.

The store’s regular clientele is mostly the elderly and families with young children. With both these groups staying away owing to the threat of the virus, the store is exploring ways in which it can reach out to more people. It has activated a web page and started an Instagram account.

The owner is also keen on exploring newer models which can add to existing sources of revenue. “Providing library services is something we have been discussing for the past couple of years,” said Myneni. “Though it requires staff and stock management, we are exploring if we can go ahead with it as it is scalable and something we are interested in.”

Inside the bookshop.

She’s also waiting to see how the situation changes in the September-December period, which is usually when sales peak because of festivals like Dussehra, Diwali and Christmas. The winter months normally see a spike in sales as that is when overseas Indians, mostly from the US, return to the city. But Myneni isn’t expecting people to be back before early next year.

“It’s a very challenging time and things need to settle down further before people start coming back,” she said. “Bookstores will be their last priority as even avid readers would prefer contactless purchases. As for author events, we need another year or so before they can be streamlined and considered safe.”

What does the future hold for Akshara? Myneni confessed she doesn’t have a clue. “I have no fixed plans. I do, however, firmly believe that a new model will evolve soon. It will become clearer as time goes by.”

She is hopeful about the joy of physical shopping for books. “Online buying is convenient,” she said, “but it is devoid of surprise. You buy a bestseller or someone’s recommendation, but don’t experience the thrill of discovery. It is the difference between taking a printout and making a painting from scratch. Half of the excitement is in the process itself. We are here for some more time.”

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