“Browsing for books and reading are such meditative practices.”

These are the words of Justice DY Chandrachud of the Supreme Court of India, who, in the course of his prolific law career, has authored several notable judgments on affirmative action in the country. Yet despite his limited free time, Justice Chandrachud remains a dedicated bibliophile. He also counts the quaintly-named independent bookstore Wayword & Wise amongst his favourite haunts in South Mumbai.

During a telephone interview on a quiet, breezy Sunday afternoon, the judge narrated pleasant anecdotes from his past visits to the city’s much-loved book shop, most of them involving its astonishingly well-read former curator, Virat Chandok. When Chandok learnt the judge had enjoyed one of his previous recommendations – neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s famed memoir Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery – he immediately handed him Marsh’s lesser-known but brilliant Admissions: A Life In Brain Surgery.

The book is a moving personal commentary on the doctor’s case studies, which commingle with his own reflections and emotions. Chandrachud says he will always be grateful to Chandok for introducing him to one of his most cherished reads of all time.

How (and why) the bookstore was born

Wayword & Wise was born five years ago with a promise to deliver a creative and immersive experience for the city’s readers, book lovers and free thinkers. Its home is on the edge of Mumbai’s business and cultural district of Fort, a hub of Indo-Gothic heritage buildings, cafes and restaurants, museums and art galleries. At first, the store’s exterior appears indistinguishable from the plethora of commercial establishments that surround it. But the transformational moment takes place in the main display area.

This rectangular space – one that manages to feel cozy and spacious at the same time – is neatly stocked with close to 10,000 new, old and rare books. The atmosphere is calm, but it crackles under the surface with a loving, literary reverence – for the joys of the written word, for the intense art form that browsing for well-curated books can be, for the tactile experience of a novel passing from shelf to hand, for the soft sound of pages flipping, and for passionate impromptu debate that might erupt over the narrative structure employed by a certain novelist or over the subtext of verse by an obscure poet. The focus here is on books – lots of books and only books.

Patrons of the store include prominent local names – among them, filmmakers Mahesh Bhatt and Govind Nihalani, author Jerry Pinto and corporate stalwart PJ Naik. But what fuels Wayword & Wise is a fierce love for all things literary and a desire to promote books of quality amongst the general reading public. It is a worthy ideology, for as Chandrachud remarked, “Dedicated bookstores are critical to the culture. Reading is essential for the evolution of society.”

Wayword & Wise is the brainchild of ex-banker and businessman Atul Sud. Over the past decade, Sud – a lifelong reader, book enthusiast and world traveller – would make it a point to visit a local indie bookshop every time he found himself in a new city. He was especially impressed when he chanced upon Parnassus, a book lover’s paradise in Nashville, Tennessee, aptly named after the Greek mythological mountain that symbolises literature and learning. Parnassus was co-founded in 2011 by Ann Patchett, the famed author of Bel Canto, who has described her store as a personal tribute to Nashville, “a gift to the city I love.”

In time, Sud became convinced that he wanted to create a similar labour of love back home in Mumbai. Fortuitously he owned a building called Strategic House on Fort’s Mint Road. With indies everywhere struggling under the burden of sky-high rents, Sud knew he was lucky to have prime real estate on hand. “I could have used my property for a business far more lucrative than an indie bookstore,” he said. “But I didn’t care. Books are what I love, this is what I wanted to do. I was in this for passion, not profit.”

Sud credits The Book Shop – New Delhi’s sophisticated indie landmark – as his main inspiration. Its owner, the late KD Singh, and Singh’s daughter Rachna became trusted mentors to Sud in the early, heady days when Wayword & Wise was being conceptualised. They guided him through the complicated business of books and advised him on critical aspects such as store decor, lighting, aisle arrangement, even such specific details as the exact height and width that its wooden shelves needed to be. Sud also found a talented collaborator in Virat Chandok, a skilled curator who had previously worked at Mumbai’s iconic Strand Book Stall and the suburban Lotus House Books.

Wayword & Wise opened its doors in late 2015, treating its curious visitors to not only an excellent selection of English language books, but also to an eclectic range of established as well as emerging genres. On offer are literary novels and novellas, crime and spy fiction, philosophy and memoir, and tomes on food, travel, photography and poetry. There is a specially-curated shelf for feminist and queer literature from around the globe, and another that showcases graphic art, erotica and adult comic books.

Keshava Guha, author and editor at Juggernaut Books, had great praise for the store’s inexhaustible selection of world literature. “Traditionally, Indian English-language publishers and bookstores have mostly imported their product from the UK,” he said. “But Wayword & Wise tapped into the vibrant US literary scene, bringing the works of lesser-known American authors to Indian readers.”

He talked of discovering, for example, Lucia Berlin, an Alaskan-born short story writer with a devoted but minuscule following outside North America. Discoveries like these made him consider Wayword & Wise a notch above other indies, a “niche indie”, where the value of books cannot be measured in sales alone.

Continuing the tradition of older – and a handful of contemporary – indies, the shop has extended its sourcing pool beyond the Anglo-Saxon world and classic Western Europe, stocking titles translated from Gallic, Arab and East Asian languages as well. It has also tapped into the stream of books published by independent publishers, including Seagull Books, Pushkin Press and Europa Editions, for example.

The online threat

Yet indies continue to face challenges the world over. Overhead costs are high and sales margins tend to be slim. Even during its pre-pandemic heyday, Wayword & Wise saw a footfall of only about ten to 15 customers a day, a low figure even by modest standards. Community support has been hard to build. It has become even tougher to maintain given the fierce onslaught of competition in recent years from e-commerce titan Amazon. And with the growing popularity of Netflix and other digital entertainment media, the number of urban Indians who once read for pleasure appears to be declining.

All this has left small, passion-project bookstores like Wayword & Wise especially vulnerable. There is scant government support for independent book retailers who must get a string of licences to operate and value-add to their businesses. Wayword & Wise’s plans to open a wine and cheese counter on the premises fell through a couple of years ago when a liquor licence was denied to the management. Moreover, bookstores like the neighbouring Kitab Khana are able to attract more readers by offering heavy discounts on their books and promoting bestsellers or big-ticket prize winners over all others.

Wayword & Wise has often had customers who expect discounts and other freebies; sometimes a sneaky browser will photograph a book or two at the store in the hope of being able to buy it online at a cheaper price. “We’ve stuck to our guns,” said Sud, “we’re not a discount store.”

This purist stand has sometimes paid off in pleasurable ways, he added, through those rare customers who walk in looking for the “really good stuff.” There will always be someone who is interested in, say, historical fiction, like Alan Furst’s masterful series of spy novels that are set against the backdrop of the Second World War. And there is the odd music aficionado as well, like a customer who once dropped by and gleefully spent Rs 7,000 on Bob Dylan’s beautifully comprehensive collection of The Lyrics: Since 1962.

As 2020 began, it was business as usual for the store, secure in the knowledge that what they were offering were not just books their customers knew they wanted, but also books that readers might never have known they wanted until they found them here.

Hit by the lockdown

When India went into strict lockdown in March, Wayword & Wise had no choice but to shut down too. By the time bookstores were allowed to open in late May, customer footfall had drastically reduced. This was expected, given that months of economic uncertainty lay ahead and the risk to health remained high. There were also added costs for bookstores, who had to regularly sanitise their physical spaces and rearrange them to enable social distancing, besides limiting the number of customers.

But the real threat for bookstores was the fact that Amazon had been permitted to resume deliveries. This meant readers could get their books delivered at home, bypassing bookshops altogether. And physical bookshops, especially indies, had to rise to the challenge.

With no end for the pandemic in sight, bookstores the world over have put their energies into experimental innovations. For indies in particular, this has meant going digital: creating virtual libraries of their books, playing social media, retraining staff for taking online orders and making deliveries, and pivoting to the truth that physical sales and income from in-person book events and festivals will be low for the foreseeable future.

Although interacting with customers online is the antithesis of indie culture in a sense, keeping and even growing their community of readers has become paramount. And various bookshops have risen to this challenge in their distinct ways. For instance, Mumbai’s Trilogy, overhauled its website though it remained closed physically, offering free membership to its virtual library and arranging for book pickups and deliveries six days a week through tie-ups with services like Swiggy and Dunzo.

Bengaluru’s Champaca has created a robust social media presence, advertising new arrivals via Facebook, Instagram and group WhatsApp posts. Launched just a few months before the pandemic outbreak, the store is known for its focus on female authors and promotes writing on feminism, sexuality, gender identity and race. During the lockdown, it built on this core identity by starting a virtual monthly book club and hosting an online author event with US novelist and essayist Roxane Gay. It also introduced a curated book-box that buyers could subscribe to.

Other indies, like Bahrisons in the National Capital Region, gave book vouchers as gifts through a tie-up with Little Black Book. In Delhi, The Bookshop replicated the browsing and recommendation experience online and despatched books in response to orders from all around the country. Guwahati’s The Bibliophile Café and Kerala’s DC Books offered a free e-book for every print purchase.

Not every one of them has succeeded in reaching their pre-pandemic sales numbers, but they kept the revenues flowing. In contrast, however, Wayword & Wise has stayed eerily quiet on the digital front. When the shop finally reopened on August 1 after four months of closure, it was with the disappointing news that its much-loved curator Virat Chandok had left.

Sud is noncommittal about the store’s future, and has adopted a “wait and watch” approach. He is currently selling existing stock but not adding to it, and has reduced working hours. And he said he has no plans to launch digital operations. Wayword & Wise’s once-active Facebook page, which last posted a prompt for Homie: Poems by Danez Smith on March 19, has remained inactive since that date.

Survival strategies

As international as well as Indian indies gear up for a digital future for bookselling, they have to nurture loyalty and support from their respective reader communities. But a growing belief among independent bookshop owners like Sud is that their struggle isn’t entirely rooted in the current pandemic, the prevailing economic recession or in the ongoing digital revolution. They feel there are deeper cultural and systemic problems – for instance, the low value that reading, literature and the humanities hold in the Indian educational system, and the lack of government support and protection for the book trade in general.

This has led to a proliferation of books offering feel-good, temporary solutions to complicated human dilemmas, making readers weigh what Guha calls the “transactional value” of a book – people who tend to invest in a book with a “what’s in it for me?” mentality and aren’t drawn to reading for pleasure.

Government protection and support can play a crucial role too, especially at vulnerable times of fear and economic uncertainty. In Europe, for instance, books and physical book stores have been recognised as vital spaces that serve the public’s intellectual and emotional health; the governments of France and Germany, among others, are actively supporting independent book stores by, for instance, not allowing them to be undercut by large discounts on online sales of books.

There is, however, no such support in the US or India. New York City’s most fashionable independent bookstore, The Strand Book Store, which stocks 2.5 million books, many of them rare, and hosts in-person literary events and salons through the year, has been choked by the pandemic. For the first time in its 93-year-old history, the shop has had to cut staff and cancel its in-store events; it has managed to stay afloat primarily thanks to online community support, donations and crowd funding initiatives.

In a bid to protect US bookstores from extinction, Literary Hub’s Andy Hunter launched the bookshop.org initiative in January this year. Since then, almost 900 independent bookstores in the country have signed up on the site, each receiving 30 per cent of every sale they help make. By last April, bookshop.org had averaged $150,000 in daily sales and it continues to grow at a fast rate. It has also opened shop in the UK.

Closer home, a clutch of indie book stores (including Mumbai’s Trilogy, Goa’s Literati and Kolkata’s Storyteller) have formed a collective called the Independent Bookstore Association of India. Their only criteria for registration is ownership of a physical book store and no corporate backing. According to the Association’s website, the aim is for indies to share resources and “to bridge the gap between indie bookstores, the publishing industry, readers and central as well as state governments.” An Indian edition of bookshop.org might be coming too.

It’s too soon to tell how this enterprise will fare in the future. But as all these initiatives show, digital operations are no longer a mere supplement to a physical bookstore, but an essential component. As Parnassus’s co-owner, novelist Ann Patchett, told The Guardian: “We make our plans. We change our plans. We make other plans. This is the New World Order.”

A lonely path

What might this New World Order mean for Wayword & Wise?

To be sure, digital technology offers bookshops viable paths to reach wider audiences. And yet, there is a certain comfort to be found within a physical book shop. I think of this while browsing at Wayword & Wise on an evening in November. The store is almost empty; outside, dusk has settled over the city.

I’m about to leave when a slim blue book, hanging out from a top shelf, catches my eye and then falls right into my hands. It turns out to be an autofiction novel I’ve never heard of – Sex And Rage by Eve Babitz – a book that, as it happens, instantly connects to my inner wild child like a kindred spirit.

In an uncertain, unpredictable and fast-changing world, books and the empathies shared through them are the tools by which we might find a deeper connection to ourselves. Perhaps that is why bookstores protect and nurture those who enter them. It’s a good enough reason for these structures to prevail for as long as humanity does, and why certain traditions – like Wayword & Wise, with all its waywardness and wisdom – should not have to change just because everything else does.

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