Some of my fondest memories of school days are of the book fairs, which were generally held on the same day as parent-teacher meetings. Much as my friends and I dreaded those meetings, we looked forward to buying coveted books. Those books would come in handy quite often as temporary buffers against the inevitable discussions about grades.

Aatmanand Das is the man behind those bookstalls. He has watched me grow up, has an excellent idea of my choices when it comes to reading, and is a great friend. We still have conversations in his cosy bookstore now and then, especially since the pandemic brought me back home to the crowded streets of my quaint home-town of Patna.

Located at the end of Boring Road, Patna, Books-En-Amee was established in 1979. It will complete its 42nd year of existence in 2021. Outside the store, a blue sign-board reads Books En Amee: The Pride of Pataliputra. On a warm autumn afternoon in October 2020, I walked into the bookstore, armed with a diary and a voice recorder. I had always wanted to know the real story behind the bookstore of my childhood, and the pandemic gave me the chance. Das and his staff members, Gulab and Satish, welcomed me with warm smiles.

Starting from scratch

“A bookstore was never part of my plan,” said Das. “I come from a small place called Kishanganj, where books were only limited to the ones you studied in school. Anything that fell outside that category was not considered worthy of reading. While I understand the importance of gaining more practical knowledge, it is equally important to read beyond boundaries.”

Das is the youngest of eight brothers, and the second among them to have experimented with an unconventional career choice. His other brothers decided to devote themselves to government jobs, while he opened his bookstore.

The second highest number of IAS aspirants in India come from Bihar. To nobody’s surprise, then, the first choice of books in this state are those that can help candidates taking the UPSC examination achieve their goals. It is one of the main reasons why bookstores in general have not been able to survive in the state. There is almost no prospect of selling anything other than academic texts, which is – needless to say – not great for business.

Despite this, Das’s late elder brother was the one who pushed him to start a bookstore instead of the original plan of a retail clothing store. Das himself was sceptical about the idea at first. ‘He was twenty years older than I was, and he spoke from experience. It is better to have the kind of shop that will kindle the desire for knowledge among the younger generations. The best way to do that was to open a bookstore. My brother didn’t want to hear of the idea of a clothing store. He believed, as I do, that a bookstore nurtures the mind. And you can see for yourself how readers and I have grown together. So my brother wasn’t wrong after all.”

Atmanand Das in his bookstore, Books-En-Amee.

The early days

Still, it was always going to be easier said than done. For one thing, Das knew nothing about the basics of running a bookstore. “My understanding of books, like everyone else here in Bihar, was limited to the books we studied in school. It took months to curate a good list of English and Hindi titles. It wasn’t just my brother who helped me to do this, the people of Patna also came to us with suggestions.”

This way, Das not only added to the list, but also learnt more about the kind of books that were being written and read across the country. He believes his bookstore would have amounted to nothing without the guidance of the readers who come to buy books. Books-En-Amee currently boasts of a formidable collection of Hindi and English books from both canonical and contemporary writers.

But it would take months to get where Books En Amee is now. “I gave myself the time to learn. These things cannot be rushed.” To start with, Das had to learn how and where to source his books.

Earlier, he used to get them from India Book Depot, but eventually he shifted to importing books from Calcutta. He travelled to metropolises like Delhi and Calcutta, and went to famous chains like Bahrisons in Delhi to understand what he wanted his own store to look like. He observed details like the arrangement of books and the quality of customer care, and made mental notes on how to apply these to his own business model. In many ways, Books En Amee has something from every bookstore across the country.

The golden period

Books En Amee witnessed what Das likes to call – somewhat dramatically – its golden period between 1982 and 1995. “Since then we haven’t had the kind of sales we saw in those years,” he said. “I was three years into running my store, and by that time, I was fairly experienced. The books in the store were my best friends. New customers would come in and I began to recognise regulars. There were healthy debates and discussions in the store itself among bibliophiles of all ages. I had five people assisting me back then.”

Today, the landscape of sales has changed yet again. Books En Amee is visited now mostly by people in their mid-twenties, by children, and the occasional working professional. There is no crowd of bibliophiles any longer – just a handful of loyal customers. “The readership of the physical book has been reduced significantly,” he said. “Mobile phones and Kindles are taking over. Amazon and Flipkart have also lured readers away, with their heavy discounts. But I don’t blame online retail. People like us have to sit down and think about why people prefer shopping online. I have noticed one thing, however – an avid reader will find their way to a bookstore because nothing can beat the experience of feeling a book and choosing the one you want.”

Relocations and uncertainty

Over the last four decades, Books En Amee has changed its address nine times. Each time felt like beginning from scratch all over again. “The place where our shop was situated earlier was demolished to build a commercial complex, hence we were forced to vacate. After that, we moved to an area near the main road. Again we met with ill luck, because our shop fell prey to an encroachment. From there, we shifted to the twin towers at Gandhi Maidan and Rajendra Nagar. To save money, I have often designed the interiors of the shop myself.”

Inevitably, there were financial repercussions, with debt mounting at times. Yet, Das never stopped trying. Now that he is finally settled in yet another new location (this time in a residential flat), he is working on new methods to attract readers. He has a book club, where readers donate used books for others to read. The collection contains a good mix of English and Hindi titles, and readers have to get a monthly subscription to be part of this club. This has proved to be a smart strategy, since it has been making significant profits of late.

“I don’t regret going through all those difficulties,” said Das. “It has made me and my bookshop tougher than before. Today I stand proud, because all these ups and downs have given me a polish of experience.”

Survival and resilience

There were four bookshops in the city when Books-En-Amee opened its doors. One of them, Reader’s Corner, was in business for ten years more than Books-En-Amee, but closed down six months after its owner died. “That bookstore had an impeccable collection”, said Das. As time passed, the other bookshops in the city started closing down, primarily because of the lack of connection between their owners and readers. This has left the city with only one real bookshop: Books En Amee.

“The most important part of this job is to share a good relationship with customers,” said Das. “Once you develop their trust, they will surely spread the word. The way to develop this trust is through consistency, respect and punctuality. We are facing tough competition because of online retailers, so if someone walks into a bookstore, the experience should be pleasant.”

“One of the things I learnt was not to hoard many books in the store for my customers; it is quality over quantity always,” said Das. He factors in the demographics of his customers to curate a list that the average consumer will look for and even demand. If a customer wants a particular book not in the store, Das contacts the publishers.

Battling the pandemic

In 2020, the novel coronavirus swept across the world, sending India into what has become known as the world’s largest lockdown. Books En Amee was hit hard in the first few months. “It has been difficult because we have not had this kind of a halt to business,” said Das. The virus turned our lives upside down, particularly since many businesses turned to online platforms after the lockdown. But we aren’t ready to do that.”

Books-En-Amee and its sales are limited to Patna. Its main customers are residents of the city, and for these reasons, Das didn’t feel it was necessary to invest in an online platform. “The ray of hope during the lockdown was that everyone stood together,” he said. “Our income was zero in the early days, because no one was stepping out of their houses. We were surviving on our savings. Even when restrictions were lifted, hardly any customer showed up. Not that we were expecting many people, but even survival seemed difficult at that point. Our landlord was kind enough to understand our situation and reduced the rent.”

Das is still recovering from the financial blow of the pandemic, but years of experience have made him resilient in the face of crisis. “I am sixty-six years old now,” he said. “I hope I to ensure that the bookstore flourishes under my care for another fifteen years or so. I started Books-En-Amee to create more bibliophiles in the city and make people realise the importance of reading. I don’t want any bookshop in future to go through what we and the ones before us have been through. I take a lot of pride in saying that my bookstore is the ‘pride of Pataliputra’. Every day, I remind myself to be true to these words and remain dedicated to my larger goal.”

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