“Bookshops are one of the few spaces that uphold democratic values, social justice and freedom of thought and speech.
Bookshops are our best hope of keeping truth alive, to help us speak up, more loudly, with more courage, each time our voices are silenced by oppressors.
Bookshops are spaces that bring us together, help us empower ourselves with knowledge, to fight back our oppressors.
We will not be silenced. We will not die.”
Recently, in the midst of despair and uncertainty, a Facebook memory showed me something I had posted three years ago.
Being a small business owner in India is really tough, more so when it is a bookshop. Millions of people in our country have never been inside a bookstore. Every day we meet people who have never read a book outside of their syllabus or course curriculum. Many of them do not even have proper access to books. It is then unsurprising that we as a society are slow in responding to problems and coming up with well-reasoned solutions effectively, including the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
Even before we had a physical store, back in 2014, we started Walking BookFairs because we wanted to make books accessible for people all over the country, especially in rural areas and for disadvantaged communities. But after spending the last six years struggling to survive as indie booksellers, one must wonder: What is the future of independent bookshops in India?
In our brahmanical, patriarchal society, if you are not born into a bookselling family, the rigid caste and class structures can crush your dreams of opening a bookshop. With no financial backing, there are simply no means available to start or sustain even a small business.
And so, determined to follow through on our dream, we started the bookstore without a physical space. Carrying books in our backpacks, we walked miles to showcase them on footpaths where our book displays were often disrupted by the local police, sometimes by rain and other times by schools or colleges who were unwilling to support booksellers in their campuses!
When we drove our bookmobile – a travelling bookshop and free library – through the forests of Chhattisgarh, we were chased and detained at police stations for long hours. When we were not being chased by the police, we faced many challenges on the highways. The streets were a different challenge altogether – we would constantly get stared at because a woman was driving a commercial vehicle, and confronted with downright hostility by some people who would not even allow us to park our bookmobile.
When we rented a shack to open a small bookshop in Bhubaneswar, managing to grow a garden out of a garbage dump so that the readers of our city could come together and read, the municipal authorities tore it down and the landlord threw us out to make way for a restaurant. When we finally built us a bookshop and filled it with beautiful books from around the world, we realised that storing books wasn’t enough to bring people inside bookstores. On the brink of closure, we launched a crowd-funding initiative which saw such generous contributions from all over the world that we were able to survive yet again.
In 2018–19, we undertook our last pan-India tour, wherein we carried a carefully curated selection of poetry books across a 10,000-kilometre stretch in 20 states of India – the country’s first-ever travelling poetry library, bookstore and open mic platform. We called it “Poems on the Road”.
We drove our bookmobile around the country to over 30 cities to hold public book exhibitions in which people stopped on the road to read books, participated in our open mic sessions on the streets, and bought books of poetry. The whole idea was to bring the spirit of books and poetry to public spaces so that people from diverse backgrounds could unite amidst love, peace and poetry.
Last year in November, following a popular month-long pop-up bookshop on the streets of Bangalore, we opened a new bookshop – Walking BookFairs Bangalore. We were organising pop-up shops all over the country – from Imphal, Itanagar and Raipur to Pune and Mysuru and Bengaluru. After an overwhelming response from readers in Bengaluru, we decided to open a permanent brick-and-mortar bookshop in the city. Little did we know that we were headed straight into a pandemic and an indefinite lockdown in our very first year.
In April, during the first nationwide lockdown, books and bookshops were officially deemed non-essential services, creating a bigger struggle for survival. Both our shops in Bhubaneswar and Bangalore were shuttered. At the same time, we wondered if the pandemic would ring in the death knell for our bookshop. Despite two booksellers who had risked their lives driving through more than 35,000 kms across twenty states to bring books to thousands of people and survived, could this pandemic really be the end of the road for us?
The past six years of our lives as indie booksellers have been fraught with so many challenges, the pandemic just feels like another bump in the road. Each of these challenges made us stronger and taught us valuable lessons that have been instrumental in dealing with newer ones. And so, even when the world was closed, our bookstore stayed open, delivering books and hope to people.
When the lockdown was first announced, my sister Upali, who runs our Bangalore store, was stuck in her home/bookshop with her books and cats. At the time, Walking BookFairs (Bangalore) was the only bookshop in the country that was open and sending books to readers in the middle of the lockdown. We started with contactless shop-front pickups of books wherein buyers could pay for books online and collect them later. Orders started pouring in and we almost ran out of books.
Thankfully our bookshop was situated in the middle of a residential neighbourhood and we could easily operate from home without having to step outside. This also made it convenient for local residents to come and collect their book orders. Dunzo and Swiggy both provided delivery services during the lockdown, which made ordering books easy for people across the city. Every day, our Instagram account was flooded with messages.
Upali spent a good part of the day (and night) responding to messages, sending out personalised book recommendations, sharing photographs of books and getting book parcels ready for delivery. It was exhausting and yet thrilling at the same time. Once India Post resumed their operations, we started sending books across the country. We also managed to re-stock books once publishers and distributors resumed operations.
Despite all challenges, the lockdown renewed our enthusiasm for books. We were able to connect with so many readers all over the country from the confines of our cozy balcony-turned-into-bookshop.
But just as orders picked up, so did corporate platforms, which severely impacted our sales. After a point, we could not afford the rent and upkeep of our physical space and our losses started piling up. Despite our landlord offering to cut our rent, we were forced to shut shop. As a last effort, we shared a post on our Instagram handle asking people to buy our unsold stock.
At once we were flooded with support from our online community. We cracked down on getting orders together, writing notes, talking to visitors, looking for a new space, responding to thousands of messages, running to the post office to send orders, forgetting to eat lunch and dinner, recommending books, and selling them day and night. On October 4, we closed our bookstore and moved out.
But the good news is that we have found a new place and are reopening with a pop-up book sale. Though the future remains uncertain, we look forward to meeting readers once again at the brand-new WBF Bangalore.
At the Bhubaneswar store, we have been able to manage affairs in the old-fashioned way, without any Zoom meetings, webinars, or online events. Since we are pretty much local, we don’t even have a website. But we have been able to use social media platforms effectively to connect with our community and even take book orders.
While online services for books as well as other amenities have taken off in an unprecedented manner during the pandemic, we still believe the only way to truly reach more people and turn them into readers is by investing in independent brick-and-mortar bookshops.
If two booksellers like us running an indie bookshop were able to connect with thousands of people across the country, imagine how thousands of independent booksellers and bookshops could impact readership in the country. We need independent bookshops in every village, town, and city of this country in order to fill every street and corner with books, ideas, and hope.
Our objective is to ensure every one of our readers experiences the magic of being inside a bookshop surrounded by books and stories waiting to be told. The lockdown did turn things upside down briefly, but not for long. In the absence of a physical space, we increased our engagement over virtual platforms, creating intimate and engaging experiences for readers.
Even during the pandemic, barring financial constraints, things have remained the same operationally. Since we never had any staff to begin with, we didn’t face issues with our staff leaving for their home towns. Right from the beginning, the two of us – Akshaya and I – have managed everything, from cleaning up to curating, from stocking books to handling day-to-day operations, from watering our lovely plants to chatting with customers, curating books, from switching off the lights to locking up the bookshop every day. Since the lockdown, our monthly curated list focuses on women in translation, queer literature, Indian writers, translations from around the world, and non-fiction, and more.
After the lockdowns, shutdowns and multiple curfews, readers have finally started trickling back into the bookshop. Although the store is physically open now, prepaid pickups remain extremely popular with local readers who pay us online and then get delivery services like Swiggy to bring their books to them. Most readers who discovered us during the lockdown have become repeat customers, and some have even visited our bookshop.
A typical day now comprises a couple of local readers browsing the shelves and asking for recommendations, cats hiding in the corners, the battery source of the shop humming in the background – we run entirely on solar power – an occasional butterfly fluttering by or a bee buzzing in, the sun filtering through the bougainvillea in full bloom outside the shop window, as life outside slowly moves on.
Right after we opened our bookshop, one of our young readers came to buy books that she wanted to gift herself on her 14th birthday with her pocket money On a subsequent visit to our bookshop, she told us how all her school friends said she was lucky to have a bookshop close by while they were stuck at home.
The addresses on our book posts feature not just the usual suspects – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, and Kolkata – but also smaller cities like Ananthapur in Andhra Pradesh, Mehsana in Gujarat, Shillong in Meghalaya, or Bahanaga in Odisha, to name a few. Every book order is sent with lots of love, a handwritten personal note and a handmade bookmark.
Our books are carefully curated with an emphasis on amplifying powerful and diverse voices from around the world. We try our best to handpick books from independent, small presses. Millions of people in India don’t have access to books, and of the small percentage of people who are privileged to have access, most prefer to buy books online. Therein lies the biggest challenge for anybody who wants to open a bookshop, and also for the Indian publishing industry.
It is important to remember that as independent bookshops, we do not receive any support or aid from the government. We run on community support and love. And in return our communities grow and thrive with us. In these tough times, we need the support of writers, publishers and readers, more than ever.
All of us need to support independent, local bookshops to build a better world that stands for social justice and democratic values. We must read more books, think and act, forget our differences, and create a more compassionate world together.
Even though the pandemic looms over our lives, we still welcome everyone to our bookstore with a warm smile, even if it is from behind a mask. If this really is the end of the world, there is nowhere else we would rather be.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.