Balraj Bahri Malhotra was a simple but principled man. Having struggled for much of his early years, his life can be seen as a model of adaptability and resilience. Displaced from their hometown of Malakwal in West Punjab due to the Partition of India in 1947, his family travelled to Delhi with little means or security.
But in a matter of six years, by sheer determination and drive, he managed to set up a small bookshop called Bahrisons in Khan Market in 1953, and was thereafter lovingly called Bahri sahib. Between the two of us, Anuj began working there after high school, and Rajni joined eighteen years ago. In that sense, Bahrisons has always been a family-run shop.
The six foundational years from 1947-1953 were not easy, but they paved the way for how the shop would operate for decades to come. A new vocation had to be learnt, a business had to be raised from the ground up, a family had to be supported, and a future had to be forged. But never bowing in the face of adversity, Bahri sahib accepted that change was inevitable, and the only path to success was to find a way to adapt to that change.
When the lockdown was first announced in March 2020, there was – along with fear and uncertainty – a sense of immense frustration. From 20 March to 8 May 2020, all outlets of Bahrisons remained closed. The feeling of getting up in the morning and not being able to go into work for the first time in nearly forty years was hard to put into words. As retailers, the bookstores in Khan Market, Galleria (Gurugram), and Saket were our only sources of livelihood. Apart from our own immediate family, many other households of our workforce depend on the income earned from the bookshops.
There are employees who have worked with us for years – some even for decades – who are like our extended families. We spend most of our working days with them. A bookshop is no singular effort; it cannot be. It is as much the effort of the bookseller as it is of the author, publisher, salesperson and the reader. A bookshop is a family, and we could not have achieved what we have had it not been for Mithilesh, Mohan, Sikender, Devinder or Lalan ji, or anyone else who works with us at our branches across the NCR.
Naturally, the first thing we had to decide was how to take care of the business and of those who depended on us. We were netting zero income during the lockdown, but expenses did not drop. The landlords of our leased stores insisted on full payment of rents, and no concessions were made despite the fact that our stores were closed and the city was in complete lockdown.
We have always been a family-run business, and never in all our years have we borrowed money from outside our own structure. Even as the 90-day lockdown began to take a toll on our own pockets, we managed. But a sense of helplessness had begun building up, and many sacrifices had to be made by our family and the extended Bahrisons clan.
Then, over this long summer, we began having difficulties at the Saket store. It was clear we could not stay in those premises for much longer. The book café, comprising originally of four units, was reduced to two; our unaccommodating landlords gave us no choice.
Perhaps this was the tipping point: a realisation that all change can be overcome with adaptability. The entire country was in lockdown, and our readers – many of whom had been loyal customers for decades and generations – needed us. For a population caught in the despair of the virus and depending on Netflix reruns, reading would come to the rescue.
People began to read unread books on their shelves; they re-read books; they even read books they’d abandoned for long, or those that had felt like tomes. They borrowed from their partners; they read along with their children; then when the hunger for something new grew, they turned to us – the booksellers.
On 8 May, inspired by Midland’s Mirza Baig, who had opened his shops first for delivery and then for walk-in customers, we wrote a letter to Manish Sisodia, the Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, requesting the Delhi Government to treat books as essential commodities. We urged them to allow bookshops to use courier and delivery services for readers across the city. In truth, Mirza gave us a lot of hope. He lives in West Delhi. If he could come all the way to his stores in South and Central Delhi, so could we.
On 10 May, Bahrisons opened its doors. There were no customers on day one. Naturally, this came as a shock to us, but we were venturing into a new world and had to acclimatise ourselves to a new way of selling books. To bring our numbers – sales and revenue – back up again after months of zero income would require more than just going back to the drawing board.
But there were endless challenges. To start with, there was lack of clarity in the Delhi government orders – about which markets could open, and which stores would be allowed to function within those markets. Once that was settled, there were newer problems to resolve.
Not much was known about the Covid-19 virus at the time, and every day at home, we would research on the latest findings about how the virus could be transmitted, and how we could protect ourselves and our customers. Dinner table conversations focused on the best gloves and face masks or the strongest sanitisers to use. But there were many things we had no answers to and these had to be learnt day by day.
After contemplating how to practise all the necessary precautions, we came up with a few basic security procedures. To start with, we would limit the number of customers in our store. We faced questions like: How many people were too many? How many were too few? How could we maintain social distancing in a store that was as narrow as our Khan Market outlet?
So we decided to limit customers to five at a time, a rule that applies even today, seven months into the pandemic. Next came the books themselves. They could not be sprayed down, but we made sure to wipe them several times a day. We put in place thermal screeners, as well as sanitisers and masks at the shop entrance.
The staff was eager to get back to work, but with public transport still shut, many had no means to commute. So each day, we would pick up and drop all the key people we needed in Delhi. Our Galleria outlet in Gurugram met yet another obstacle – the inter-state border. As state governments implemented their own rules in the early days of opening up, there was perennial confusion regarding the status of the borders between Delhi and Haryana. The borders would be open one day and closed the next.
Some of our staff decided to temporarily rent a room in Gurugram, away from their families. They lived together during that time of uncertainty, taking care of one another and the Galleria outlet. No questions were asked; there was no hesitation on their part to do anything. Instead, we witnessed a dedication equal to our own.
Just as we solved the problem of staff presence, another concern arose. This time, it was about the availability of books. We have one main warehouse near our accounts office and two smaller warehouses near our other shops. While we had stocks at all three outlets, they were limited because neither distributors nor publishers were open for business. So we made do with what we had.
But how could we effectively and efficiently tell our customers we were open and ready for business? We’ve always had a distinct presence on social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Now we needed to figure out how to convey a host of new details regarding payments, which stores were open and where, which numbers to call, how to place orders, and the availability of books – all within one, uncomplicated template.
Our younger daughter designed the flyers you may have seen on social media. Bank transfers, and payment systems like Google Pay and Paytm had to be navigated in a new way. Building a database of customers became more essential than ever, because apart from our old customers, there was a flood of new ones as well, who came from across the country, and whose orders ranged from one book to multiple ones.
It’s important to reinforce the idea that a bookshop – or any shop, really – is contingent on its customers. Readers could have easily relied on eBooks or shopped with large discounts from online sellers, and yet they chose to order from an independent bookshop like ours. This gave us immense hope that not only we would survive the pandemic, but also that physical books would never go out of style.
In fact, there was a time during this pandemic that even Amazon and other online giants had shut operations completely, and it was independent bookshops who rose to the occasion. A bookshop is not a mere business; it is about creating a relationship with our customers. We may not be able to provide massive discounts or special offers, and it may take a little longer than the push of a single button to place your order, but we can ensure the literary nourishment of generations of your family.
Bookshops and libraries are the heart of a civilisation, a city, a community. The emotional connection with an old bookshop is deep, and eventually it was this connect that brought our customers back.
Bahrisons has prided itself on its close relationships with authors, who often come in to inscribe copies, stay for a cup of chai and interact with readers. The shop is a space that makes such interactions possible. But with the pandemic, author visits became rare, so had the release of new books. Stuck in the limbo of Covid-19, many books came out first as eBooks.“Virtual” book tours became the norm.
In May, much to our delight, Westland Books got in touch. Pavan Varma’s latest book The Greatest Ode to Lord Ram was going to be out soon and he wanted to come in to sign copies. Since we couldn’t publicise this event, we circulated photographs and a sound-byte from him about the book on social media. The response was wonderful!
In June, Ira Mukhoty dropped in to our outlets. Her highly anticipated biography of Akbar had released in March, but her book tour had been cancelled because of the pandemic. Once again, the response on social media was electric, and we were overwhelmed with requests for signed copies.
From thereon, due to the sheer number of orders, along with our in-house delivery service, we navigated newer courier options. This was worth it if our customers were getting the books quicker. And so, despite the challenges, we were back in business with sales gradually picking up. Life was a new set of rules and challenges, and yet, there were also unexpected opportunities.
For many months, readers had been asking us to open shop in one of the malls in Vasant Kunj, and we were suddenly offered an opportunity to do so. It was uncharted territory, but it would give us an outlet in South-West Delhi for the first time. The owners and the sales team at Ambience Mall offered us a great lease term. The mall did not have a bookshop until then, so this would bring in new customers for them too. Slowly, the idea of a Vasant Kunj store began to take shape.
It may seem unbelievable to open a new bookshop in the midst of a lockdown and a pandemic, but in fact, the lockdown actually prompted this step. We thought we would lose one of our stores because of the inflexible demands of our landlords, but help inexplicably came our way. For that, we will always remain grateful. With reasonable rent terms offered by the mall, the Vasant Kunj outlet turned into reality. We became consumed by it in the process of restarting business.
On 6 September, we were handed over the premises for the new shop. With the help of a dedicated and trusted team of contractors and employees, we managed to set it up in in trying circumstances and limited time. Safety procedures were followed, everyone remained masked and at an adequate distance, and an efficient system was devised where there were a minimum number of people working on any given shift. We worked day and night; within a pandemic, a ray of hope had emerged. We hired only one new staff member fort he shop, while the rest were brought in from other branches. Within a month, the newest addition to the Bahrisons family was ready.
We always inaugurate a new bookshop on Bahri sahib’s birthday to honour his legacy. The new shop at Ambience Mall, too, was officially opened to the public on October 9, his 92nd birth anniversary. We had a small ribbon cutting ceremony (taking safety and sanitation into account), and our oldest daughter became the first author to sign her books at the new shop, bringing our story full circle. That evening, we also launched debut novelist Karuna Ezara Parikh’s book, The Heart Asks Pleasure First (Pan Macmillan), on our Instagram.
Sixty-seven years have passed since Bahri sahib opened his first store in Khan Market, and yet his particular way of conducting business remains the same even after generations. Sixty-seven years on, we have been witness to history – a Partition, multiple wars, moon landings, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and now, a pandemic. Like so many other family-run businesses, ours too has been a journey of passion, pragmatism and survival.
The times may be difficult now, and while things will certainly improve, the process will be slow. One of the greatest comforts, though, is knowing that family will always remain by your side – whether our kin, or our extended family of employees, readers, and the publishing fraternity. Bahri sahib’s legacy of being undaunted by adversity and his adaptability towards change is not only practised even today but is also testament to the business’s survival.
To honour this enduring trait of his, I had composed a couplet many years ago:
“Mushkil toh nahi is duniya mein,
Kuch haasil kar paana,
Zakhmonko agar marham kar lo,
Kya haqeeqat kya afsana”
Loosely translated to English, it’s the principle by which Bahri sahib lived his life. “It is not difficult to achieve success in this world. If the disease itself becomes the medicine, then what is true, and what is make-believe”?
As told to Narayani Basu and Aanchal Malhotra.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.