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The undying lure of Delhi bookshops

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The undying lure of Delhi bookshops

In this digital age, it isn't easy for a brick mortar bookshop to survive in a metropolis. We speak to a few indie bookstore owners to know how and what keeps them going.

The reading habit and with it the fate of bookstores, have seen a number of highs and lows over the past decade. Several brick and mortar stores were unable to keep up with online bookstores like Amazon, regarded by many as a great convenience for the doorstep delivery they offer. Though news about several independent book stores closing down keeps pouring in, there are many that have not only avoided this fate, but have actually flourished.

TRADITION SCORES

In the bustling Aurobindo Market lies Midland Book Shop. As you look around their collection, you will notice Urdu titles, latest must-read authors, such as Ikigai and the Just William and Harry Potter series, to classics like Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, works by PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler, and more unexpected perennials such as Richard Braithwaithe's To Sir with Love. A steady stream of customers, from schoolchildren to older patrons can be seen glued to the bookshelves. Photographs of many celebrities who visited the shop including Arundhati Roy, Natwar Singh, Salman Khurshid, Patrick French and Alex Rutherford, line the wallS.

Midland founder Mirza Yaseen Baig is still a part of the book shop. He has been in the Delhi book business for several decades now. Baig founded the Aurobindo branch in 1985, much later than the New Book Land stall in Janpath, which was opened in 1978. Ask him for a specific title, and he is bound to find it without a catalogue and within a minute. And he can always recommend some new reads as well. Baig has an optimistic view of the reading habit. There will always be a large number of people who read. That's how they have been raised to read. Even if less people are reading physical books and turning to digital, I myself haven't seen much difference in sales. Even those who read on Kindle, still patronise bookstores, he adds. He goes on to explain certain advantages of digital distractions, Well, Netflix has many series based on books. So, when Sacred Games was airing last year, people rushed to buy Vikram Chandra's book. Midland is something of a tradition. Marketing consultant Garima Chawla, 29, remembers, When my parents did their shopping every weekend, they would drop me off here, and I would sit in the corner and read. Their collection is still great. Ujjwala Rai, 54, a former teacher says, I used to come here after school with my eight-year-old. She would look at the Roald Dahls, while I browsed through the Mary Stewarts and Jean Plaidys. Baig agrees, Many people also come looking for their old favourites such as Ayn Rand, and Louis L'Amour. One aspect you see in the book trade is that authors never die.

COLOURS & WORDS

At Gurugram South Point Mall, is Quill And Canvas, both a bookstore and art gallery. Shabnam Kumar, 21, a BA student in IP University says, It has diverse titles from Indian Newsroom to books by Murakami. There is also a used book section, a place where customers can sit and read. The gallery has works by renowned artists such as Jamini Roy. Shobha Sengupta, founder and proprietor, explains, I found it difficult to buy books or art, so in 2002, I founded a business where I could enjoy both.

It is something of a hub, and has attracted visitors such as William Dalrymple, Amish, the late Vinod Mehta, and Ashwin Sanghi. We also host a lot of events centred on books, including launches and discussions. We even have a monthly book club with 65 participants. The used book section is another small hub. In fact, at times customers tell me that my used books are way cheaper than those on Amazon. Being in great shape (books), they end up buying them. I have diversified to stay afloat, and can connect out to the customers in these ways. She adds, I believe anyone who walks into a book store is a fabulous person. Even if they are just browsing, bookstores still have a purpose.

BINGE CORNER

When you go through one of the alleys of Khan Market, and go up a flight of stairs, you will see Full Circle, with its warm ambience, lines of bookshelves, and throng of customers. Café Turtle is also thriving here. Full Circle and Café Turtle have another branch in GK 1. As Priyanka Malhotra, owner and daughter of founder Poonam Malhotra points out, Food has the comforting ability to bring people together and Café Turtle has built its philosophy around this premise people coming together to interact, share ideas, and have the space to read in solitude. Full Circle is also known for hosting book launches and readings, and a programme for children's workshops. She adds, We felt we should create a community of book-readers who can meet and exchange notes on literature and life.

Speaking on some the major challenges Full Circle has faced in the last 10 years, Malhotra says, Rents are high, therefore running a bookstore can be difficult, especially with online sales platforms that offer competitive prices. Therefore, a brick and mortar store has to constantly innovate and evolve so that the place offers an experience' rather than just a transactional purchase. I think as a community needs to realise what these spaces really mean to us. It is important to patronise them, because they offer much more than a click of a button on our smartphones.

As Shabnam Qazi, 34, who is pursuing her PhD in University of Cologne, Germany, says, Full Circle has great titles, and it's a space where I can read and relax. I prefer going here and Café Turtle over Starbucks.

AN OLD LANDMARK

Other bookstores have a more conventional approach. As you enter Khan Market, one of the very first things you see, is the front window of the Bahrisons Booksellers. Founded in 1953, Bahrisons now has five stores across the city, including Bahri Kids in Khan Market. Its location and long history has made it very well-known in Delhi.

All the must-haves, and what's in style is always in stock here, says Ritwick Bajaj, a software engineer. It is great for window shopping too, he adds. The other branches, in Saket and Gurugram are much larger and have cafés.

Anuj Bahri Malhotra, owner, and son of founder Balraj Bahri, says, Sometimes in bookshops with cafés, people come for the Wifi. Our Khan Market stores are purely bookshops. Bahri has a markedly open and optimistic view of the reading habit in the country. They are generally interested in reading the latest books. And, books are now just one form. Whatever form they are reading in, they are still reading. He stresses, I don't believe book shops will go out of fashion in India. Bookshops are the cultural hubs of each city. I think a city without a book shop is a haunted one.

He trashes the theory that many, including, millennials don't read anymore. Everyone is reading. He goes on to say, In fact, the millennials are the ones who read the most. According to Amazon, 60 per cent of their book customers are the millennials.

LOST TREASURES

There are other shops, however, which have shut shop, affected by the high rentals, changes in customer tastes and shifts in market profiles. These include Galgotias and The Bookworm in Connaught Place, Spell and Bound in SDA Market, The Knowledge Store in Green Park Market and Fact and Fiction in Vasant Vihar. A number of customers were disappointed at the development. Aastha Mehra, a 34 year-old-freelancer says, Those were good days and good shops. It made you wonder, how can we go down this road? Former owner of Fact and Fiction, Ajit Kumar Singh, says, Location has a lot to do with it. Shops like Bahrisons and Full Circle have the advantage of being in a central market like Khan Market. Fact and Fiction, was in the Vasant Vihar colony market. It was also a question of access. He cites the example of South Extension, which used to be a thriving centre for books, but faded away due to massive construction and extension that took place. These are the extraneous reasons. There was also the question of access and how the internet made everything more convenient. Due to parking problems in the Vasant Vihar Market, during the last few years, there had been a major decline in the number of people coming during the day.

Speaking about the quality of books at the different bookshops now, Singh says, There is no real variety amongst the book stores right now. It has led by what the distributors are giving you. My own bookshop was curated. Now it's all about new in and old out. Most bookshops have the same collections. Very few booksellers are really choosing the books.

HOPE STILL FLOATS

There are a large number of other bookstores in Delhi, which are still successful. Oxford Bookstore in CP, attracts patrons, not only with its collection, but with book launches and events, and has a packed calendar for children's workshops. Om Bookstore, Crossword, and Jor Bagh's The Book Shop, as well as a host of others, are keeping the tradition alive.