“We were happy because we could not go anywhere else,” mused the nostalgic narrator of Nirmal Verma’s 1972 novel, Days Of Longing. The same sentiment may have been felt by another young man who, on a quiet afternoon decades later, made his way to Syndicate Book House in the small North Indian town of Bareilly.

He had played in the bookstore as a child, just before he and his family moved to another city, and with the passage of time and other distractions, Bareilly had become a vague memory. But what this young adult remembered clearly was the small debt he owed to Syndicate’s cheerful owner – even though she, most likely, would not remember him at all.

Sure enough, Santosh Verma could not quite place the nervous young man who smiled and approached her as she stood at her usual spot at the cash counter. But she was amused and then deeply touched when he explained. Handing over a bundle of notes – exactly Rs 150 – the stranger insisted Verma accept it as payment for a comic book he’d mischievously “stolen” from the store years ago as a little boy, an act that had weighed on his conscience ever since.

Santosh Verma was taken aback by the gesture, and laughed as she recalled it. “There was a time when local families would drop in, leave their kids at Syndicate while they ran errands elsewhere, sometimes for hours on end. We encouraged children to spend time here, playing and reading our piles of books and comics,” she said.

As one of Bareilly’s oldest book stores, Syndicate Book House has witnessed several generations of customers come and go over its 40 years of life. But it has also struggled under the double impact of recent, hard-hitting change – first, the advent of a digital culture and now, an unabated pandemic.

“During the first lockdown in early 2020, there was a temporary resurgence in the demand for books,” said Santosh Verma. “But generally, most of the under-30s have switched to the habit of reading on their phones. It’s a bad scenario for physical bookstores. The culture of reading and of literary appreciation has completely changed in recent years.” Now, people come to the store to openly photograph titles of books so that they can get them cheaper online.

Starting from scratch

In the late 1970s, RG Verma and Santosh Verma were like many newly-married couples of their time – eager to start a family and their own business. They had good jobs; Santosh Verma was a schoolteacher with a postgraduate degree in English Literature, while RG Verma held a position with multinational Johnson & Johnson.

Despite their shared passion for reading, neither imagined their future lay in running a bookstore. The idea took shape once RG Verma realised his true calling and personal philosophy. “My husband loved books,” said Santosh Verma, “and his motto right from the start was that if you loved your work, you would never work a day of your life.”

In 1980, Syndicate Book House opened its doors as a modest little bookshop near Bareilly College, the city’s oldest and most prestigious educational institute. It offered a selection of popular English bestsellers by authors such as Robin Cook, Sidney Sheldon and Agatha Christie, titles from the romance series Mills & Boon and children’s comics like Archie and Commando, all imported from distributors such as Variety Books in Delhi and India Book House in Mumbai. Thrown into the mix were other, more eclectic titles – ones that RG Verma laughingly described to the couple’s inquisitive well-wishers as “the kind of books no one will read.”

At first, the bookstore was an anomaly in a small town where the demand from its middle-income families was primarily for text books. Perhaps the somewhat dry name of “Syndicate Book House” drew in students looking for technical and academic study guides. But the Vermas were adamant that they would stock only “general category” books – meant for the pleasure of reading and not for scoring in competitive exams.

“It took some time for the trend of leisure reading to catch on in Bareilly,” said Santosh Verma. But soon enough, curious customers came to the bookstore, first in trickles and then in waves.

Yet it soon became clear that customer demand was not so much for textbooks – as the Vermas had once believed – but more for quality fiction and non-fiction in Hindi. Bareilly, a trading and cantonment town just 250 kilometres east of Delhi, lies in the heart of North India’s Hindi-speaking belt, and was at that time home to a vibrant reading community that hungered for the rich stories from its own culture, language and history.

These included literary masterpieces such as Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, Munshi Premchand’s Godan and Srilal Shukla’s seminal work Raag Darbari. Indeed Shivpalganj, the fictional setting of Shukla’s satire of modern Indian democracy’s many quirks and failings, could have been any of the villages that dot the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Growing a community

Eager to fulfil the rising demand for Hindi-language books, the Vermas tied up with names that were synonymous with modern Hindi literature – publishers such as Rajkamal Prakashan, Rajpal & Sons and Vani Prakashan. “My father Arun Maheshwari began and then nurtured our relationship with Syndicate Book House over the years,” said Vani Prakashan’s Executive Director Aditi Maheshwari Goyal.

Today, the Delhi-based publishing house has a catalogue of over 6,500 titles and publishes over 2,500 authors, and its bond with Syndicate has remained. Santosh Verma recalled, “Our collaboration was based on mutual trust and faith. We started out by simply displaying books in the hope that they would sell.”

They did, and by the mid-1980s, about 40 percent of Syndicate’s shelf space stocked Hindi language books. By this time, the bookstore had moved to its new, double-storeyed location in Civil Lines, the city’s vibrant commercial district. On the top floor, the shop sold stationery, gifts and greeting cards; below lay the 600 square-foot foyer for its several thousand books.

Over the years, Raag Darbari – which has been translated into 16 languages since its publication in 1968 – remained a robust favourite amongst Syndicate’s devoted readers of Hindi literature. The works of authors such as Ashok Vajpayee, Chitra Mudgal, Sahir Ludhianvi, Munnawar Rana, Gyan Chaturvedi, Rajendra Yadav, Narendra Kohli and Shivani were also in demand, as were the genres of poetry and ghazal, mythology and self-help.

Crime and detective fiction by stalwart Surendra Mohan Pathak, who has more than 300 blood-laced thrillers to his credit, could be found alongside Hindi translations of Arundhati Roy’s award-winning novel The God Of Small Things, Stephen Hawking’s non-fiction bestseller A Brief History Of Time and, more recently, Shiv Kher’s motivational book You Can Win (or Jeet Aapki). Relatively newer voices in fiction and poetry – such as those of Neelesh Mishra, Neelima Chauhan and Deepak Ramola – also proved popular amongst Bareilly’s younger generations of readers, as did books of all genres in English.

But even as Syndicate Book House created a space for itself in the heart of Bareilly’s literary community, there was the pain of personal loss at home. The unexpected death of RG Verma in the mid-1990s was a tragic blow to Santosh Verma and their two young daughters. But Santosh Verma was determined to keep her husband’s dream alive and flourishing well into the new millennium.

Still, the winds of change started to blow over the bookselling business. By the early to mid-2010s, independent brick-and-mortar bookstores faced a number of challenges – the advent of e-commerce, fierce competition from digital media and entertainment, and spiralling rents. With items like greeting cards and telephone diaries no longer in demand, Syndicate cut costs by closing down its upper floor stationery department.

Surprisingly, the bookstore showed little innovation amidst the onslaught of a new digital book culture. Syndicate stuck to its familiar style of operation, offering books only in physical format at no discount. And unlike other independent bookstores that were innovating online, Syndicate established no digital presence or virtual operations, not even a website.

Why not? Santosh Verma said, “Maybe I am too rigid, but I did not want to diversify and offer discounted books online just for the sake of growth. By this time my daughters were grown up and well-settled and I did not need to work just to make more and more money. The pleasure of running Syndicate came from my own love for reading, and from having a space where people could interact and browse for good quality books. I kept it that way.”

As the decade came to a close, she had no regrets over her decision. Syndicate’s homegrown charm sustained a steady average of 80-100 visitors a day, many of whom were loyal long-term customers who believed in supporting independent bookstores. Other regular clients included some of Bareilly’s leading biblio-institutions, such as IVRI – The National Library of Veterinary Sciences, Rohilkhand University, and the library wing of the Indian Army’s Six Mountain Division Headquarters.

Syndicate was firmly established on Bareilly’s cultural map, and several local writers, playwrights and artists were part of its network. Amongst them was doctor Vijeshwar Singh, whose enthusiasm for literature and theatre had led him to form his own amateur drama group, and to launch an annual 15-day theatre festival in the city. A recent play written and performed by Singh and his troupe of actors was a Hindi adaptation of surgeon Paul Kalanithi’s 2016 memoir When Breath Becomes Air – a book that Syndicate had sold in high numbers since that year.

“The audience was enthralled,” said Santosh Verma, who has witnessed the rise of small but regular literary events in Bareilly over the years. One of them was Rang Samagam, a tribute to Hindi poet Nirankardev Sevak that ran for five days in November 2019. The writer’s well-known works – amongst them, Mazaak, Killol and Vihag Kumar – were performed by artists from Bareilly and Varanasi; the festival also featured Bhopal’s Ekrang and Bihar’s Rang Darshan Art theatre groups.

The shock of the first wave

In the spring of 2020, the pandemic rocked the publishing industry. The stringent national lockdown between March and May saw an 80 per cent drop in book sales across the country. The months that followed saw little publishing activity and the cancellation of all physical book launches and events, even as thousands of independent bookstores like Syndicate fought valiantly to stay alive.

But the dark year revealed its silver lining. Leading publishers no longer thought of their digital presence as a mere supplement to their business. Instead, they went mainstream with digital programmes and aggressive social media marketing strategies to promote books, and to connect their authors and readers.

Many of Syndicate’s long-standing English and Hindi-language publishers took bold initiatives in the first half of 2020; these included Rajpal & Sons’ Karona Charcha, a virtual series for readers, and Vani Prakashan’s Online Mahotsav featuring award-winning authors such as Mamta Kalia and Uday Prakash. Alongside, according to Hindi audio publisher Storytel, audio books and e-books saw a short-lived but massive 200 per cent spurt in sales last summer. The rest of the year saw the emergence of over 60 online platforms for Hindi literature – some of these introduced readers digitally to established authors such as Bihar’s Usha Kiran Khan, while others promoted new voices in Dalit and feminist literature and poetry.

“Our role as a publishing house became clear – we had to imagine a fully digital future,” said Aditi Maheshwari Goyal. So did independent bookstores, most of which scrambled to adapt to the digital bandwagon in order to survive. At first, this proved challenging even in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai, but soon, outlets in smaller metros showed an innovative spirit. Universal Booksellers, Lucknow’s leading retailer for general category and academic text books, fully digitised its library of English, Hindi and Urdu books, mounted energetic Facebook and Twitter campaigns, and offered attractive discounts as well as free home delivery services for customers.

Unfortunately, Bareilly’s Syndicate Book House followed a different narrative. When it reopened in May 2020 after two months of closure, it continued to offer only in-person sales. Not having a digital presence hit the bookstore hard, as did its firm no-discount policy. Given the risk to public health and strictly enforced social distancing norms, customer footfall was at its lowest ever, averaging, at best, 20-25 a day.

Syndicate stayed open through the rest of the year, but was forced to cut its staff by half to a team of four. It also saw sales drop to 50 per cent of what they had been in 2019. Nevertheless, Santosh Verma, like most independent bookstore owners, believed the pandemic would soon blow over and that business would be revived.

Indeed, the early weeks of 2021 fuelled this optimism. When India’s health ministry announced that Covid-19 infections were at an “all-time low” in January and February, book retailers geared up for what they thought would be a full recovery of sales within the next six months.

The second tsunami and what lies ahead

That hope quickly crashed into despair over the spring and early summer when the second coronavirus wave, far more lethal than the first, hit the country. “The situation this year is radically different,” said Aditi Maheshwari Goyal. “In 2020, publishing, like all other sectors of the economy, found ways to withstand what we thought was a temporary crisis. But in 2021, the losses are going to be huge. We’ve seen negligible physical sales at our bookstores over the past two months, and with no end in sight for the pandemic, financial cycles will take a bad beating for a long time to come.”

Syndicate Book House has remained closed since April 27 this year. Bareilly, like the rest of India’s most populous state, has been choked under a new cycle of lockdown. But unlike last year, this time bored customers were not asking Santosh Verma to open the bookstore for short periods so that they can stock up on reading material. This spring, there has been only silence. “Human survival is what is essential now, not books,” said Santosh Verma. For Syndicate, the future is tenuous.

And yet, the human tragedy has proved to be a catalyst for looking ahead, and a bittersweet reminder of the limited and precious nature of time. Santosh Verma has yet to decide whether or when she will permanently close Syndicate, but is pragmatic enough to accept that she cannot sustain her beloved bookstore much longer.

“I’m in my sixties and even if the pandemic were to miraculously end, I don’t see myself returning to sit in the shop all day,” she said. “I’ve run Syndicate for four decades and now I want to spend time with my daughters, perhaps enjoy other interests like travel, yoga and gardening.” Or reading shayaris. What is certain, though, is that it will be hard for her to let go of Syndicate Book House.

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