With the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic immediately thereafter, Kashmir has been hit by back-to-back lockdowns and a communication shutdown for the past two years. Despite this, Bestseller, one of the oldest bookstores in Kashmir, continues to attract hundreds of readers and sell thousands of books. The bookstore owes its survival to its unique business strategy of selling books at discounted prices while offering sales of old and new books.
“We certainly have a lower profit margin, but we attract far more customers,” said 29-year-old Sani Yasnain Chiloo, who runs the bookstore in the heart of Srinagar.
The original strategy
In 1985, Sanaullah Chiloo converted a ground-floor provisional store in Lal Chowk, the city centre of Srinagar, into a bookshop. The early years were defined by simplicity. In those days, Bestseller stocked a limited number of Urdu and Kashmiri books from local publishers, along with Islamic literature. The bookstore sold stationery as well. But soon, Sanaullah started stocking books sourced from within and outside Kashmir, in both English and Urdu.
In 2017, he encouraged his son Sani to join the family business. Having recently completed his MBA from Pune, Sani Chiloo was able to apply his lessons in management to reorganise the store. His methods were almost out of a textbook.
Sani Chiloo collected feedback and inputs from Bestseller’s oldest and most regular clients. Based on this, he researched the most sought-after books by customers in Srinagar. Taking Bestseller into the 21st century could best be accomplished via social media, and Sani Chiloo did not hesitate.
Using a mix of Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, he began to regularly ask for suggestions, especially from younger readers and students, about the kind of books they would like to read. His most important discovery, he said, was that the youth in Kashmir desperately wanted to read more, but they couldn’t always afford books at market rates.
“Taking feedback online helped us learn about people’s changing reading habits,” Sani Chiloo. Soon we had more young people and students visiting the bookstore to buy the books they wanted to read.”
In 2019, he introduced the unique sales model for which Bestseller is now renowned. “I wanted to make books affordable for young people here as they want to buy and read more books,” he said. Some books, mostly for young readers, were also reserved for free giveaways every month.
Sani Chiloo stocked the store with the latest bestsellers, and acquired a wide-ranging collection of classic and contemporary fiction, non-fiction, Urdu and Islamic literature, to be sold at discounted rates. He realised that the physical appearance of the bookstore needed a facelift as well. So the store was renovated, with more bookshelves and enticing displays of the latest prizewinners and bestsellers. Currently, the bookstore holds a broad range of fifteen thousand books across English, Urdu and Islamic literature.
After the abrogation
The first mighty wave of change hit Bestseller when Article 370 was abrogated officially on 5 August, 2019. Following the official announcement, a security lockdown and a complete communications blackout went into effect. For months, the state was without access to the Internet, and citizens were confined to their homes. It was, as Sani Chiloo said, “a difficult period.”
But despite the abrupt end to life as residents knew it, the demand for books persisted. Sani Chiloo recounted how he managed to send books to his customers, selling about 10 percent of the available stock in the process. “I would quickly enter the rear entrance of bookstore early in the morning at around 6 am and take out books that customers had ordered.”
The abrogation of Article 370 reverberated across the supply chain as, for five months, Bestseller was unable to stock or sell any new books. With communication cut off from the outside world, the store suffered heavy losses. Publishers had to be paid for the summer stock of books, even though the store had seen only a trickle of sales following the security shutdown of the state, but commitments couldn’t be fulfilled.
With the pandemic added to the mix, the shutdown is still in place, badly affecting the relationship between publishers and booksellers in Kashmir. Sometimes publishers are reluctant to sell large stocks to booksellers here since they can’t promise sales or timely payments. This is a continuing challenge for all bookstores including Sani Chiloo’s.
“Publishers usually give me a window during which to make payments,” he said. “The pressure to pay was lower during the Covid-19 lockdown. After all, that’s a global pandemic, so what else can you do but give someone a little flexibility? But it was different during the shutdown after Article 370 was abrogated. Publishers still expected to be paid as before, but how could we do that with no communications and no internet, among other things?”
After security restrictions were eased, Sani Chiloo travelled to Delhi and bought about ten thousand books, many of them second-hand, but in good condition. He offered his customers a flat discounted price of Rs 150 for all paperbacks and Rs 250 for hardbacks. By word of mouth and with the help of online publicity, news about the big sale attracted readers from across the Valley. The books on sale ranged from classics to contemporary literature, including Booker and Pulitzer Prize-winners.
In the times of Covid-19
In March 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown threw Kashmir into further economic turmoil. All markets were shut down for nearly four months. Raging safety concerns as well as security issues and continuing internet shutdowns meant Bestseller couldn’t even register orders online. “This is a huge issue in Kashmir: the constant disappearance of social media platforms due to Internet blackouts,” said Sani Chiloo.
“I have tried to mitigate this,” he added. “I have made a WhatsApp group. I have about 1000 followers on my social media platforms. They all have my number as well, so if there is no internet, they can at least call me if they need anything.”
After the pandemic restrictions were lifted, Bestseller started taking limited online orders. “We would pack books in polythene bags, spray them with disinfectant and then deliver them to addresses in the green zone areas of the city, while maintaining social distancing,” said Sani Chiloo. But he was often stopped at checkpoints. A solution had to be found, and he came up with an ingenious one.
So, Sani Chiloo made another WhatsApp group, this time consisting entirely of doctors, the only people permitted to be out 24x7. They would message the lists of titles that they or their friends and families needed or wanted. Sani Chiloo would bring the books back to his house, which is a stone’s throw from his home. And the doctors would arrive in the wee hours of the morning to collect the books.
After Covid-19-related restrictions were relaxed and the markets reopened, Sani Chiloo offered a second lot of books at discounted rates, which also received a good response, especially from college and university students who thronged the bookstore.
The shop stocked around 10,000 books – 30% of which were second-hand and 70%, new. During the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, despite all the hardships, Bestseller sold approximately 3,000 books. “I would like to acquire and sell more books at affordable rates to the youth,” Sani Chiloo said.
He is optimistic, arguing that while it will take some time to recover from the losses, focusing on them will make planning for the future impossible. “Losses and profits are a part of every business, and the losses were not specific to bookstores only,” he added.
Sani Chiloo also pointed to the silver lining – book sales have gradually picked up since the end of 2019. “I think during that first lockdown, since the internet was also down for months, many people including youngsters started reading books,” he said.
He doesn’t yet know what a post-Covid world will look like, but Sani Chiloo aims to expand his bookstore to other districts in Kashmir so that more books are made available at affordable rates. “It’s a healthy sign for reading culture that young people in Kashmir are increasingly drawn to books,” he said. “After all, these young people are also our future.”
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.