Reading in the Time of Corona: Testimonials of Bookstore Owners in Bengaluru post the Pandemic

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Reading in the Time of Corona: Testimonials of Bookstore Owners in Bengaluru post the Pandemic

A reportage by Prithiva Sharma, Meghna Prakash, and Shaoni Dasgupta

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a global crisis. Every country is making it a priority to combat the virus and stop it from spreading any further, and India’s approach has been no different. But within this health catastrophe, the lockdown measures that are being taken are affecting the economy hard. Every field of work has hit a snag, with people relying heavily on online businesses to get services and items without having to step out.

The ones who are hit the hardest are independent business owners, who, in these unanticipated times, are facing a dearth of customers and sales due to reasons of lockdown, transport and the social climate full of fear. Among these come independent bookstores, who thrive on loyal customers, a steady stream of tourists and explorers and word of mouth promotions, and are now having to look for alternate ways to maintain their string of customers and develop new sales opportunities.

Bookstores in Bangalore are no different; Ms Radhika Timbadia from Champaca Bookstore at Queens Road talked about difficulties in paying the staff and rent, even as their “bank balance diminished every day”, highlighting some of the issues independent bookstores are facing. The pandemic and the consequential lockdown has prompted them to take up projects and promotion and distribution strategies that weren’t required before, as business was more personal, with individualized conversations and browsing titles physically in the stores. Now, orders are placed online and are shipped – which also brings up the problem of transportation during shipping, time delays and the limits of shipping and courier services.

Champaca Bookstore, Bengaluru
Champaca Bookstore, Bengaluru

Mr Ravi Menezes from Goobe’s Book Republic, Church Street, happily points out that it has been worth the effort for sparking joy in people as they spot their favourite book or an interesting new pick. Goobe’s Book Republic has remained grounded to the current realities and has gone online ( instamojo.com/goobes ) with a small curated selection.

Ms Lakshmi Sankar from Atta Galatta at Koramangala sheds light on complications caused by transportation barriers, talking about the lack of new incoming stock in their bookstore. Champaca Bookstore through their Instagram handle, while updating about their new Book Subscription Parcels, highlight the “unprecedented delays” that delivery partners are facing – a reminder that these hurdles are a consequence of the pandemic resulting lockdown, and none of these bookstores or courier services has any control over it.

Aashti from Lightroom Bookstore has confessed to worrying more about the world at large than her bookstore. In her optimism, she mentions how things have been better for her than most, with regards to a chunk of the rent being waived off by the landlady, distributors being understanding about delayed payments and having the benefits of a small team which leads to fewer worries about salary! She also feels that as much as the pandemic has increased the team (Lightroom Bookstore)’s involvement with the delivery dealings regularly, more and more kids are reading and being read to, which has always been the hope.

The most important aspect of this event is the habitat of the books in the bookstore. As a reader, people have several options to read in today’s technological times – there are Kindle versions of books available, as well as many online portals that sell books. For these bookstores, whose entire purpose is to turn reading into an experience, their books were alone on the stands for the longest time. Mr Murthy of Select Bookshop at Church Street calls it a “lull in the vicinity of the bookshop” and shares with us the thinning out of customers due to this pandemic.

Champaca Bookstore, Bengaluru
Champaca Bookstore, Bengaluru

Mr Ravi maintains as much excitement about the reading graph that has gone up during these times as he does for the benevolent donations that have come in, in support of the bookstore. He envisions a world where the people give legitimate credits to local bookstores, encourages and builds them up to avoid creating homogeneity in intelligence and reading culture.

A major part of buying books from a bookstore is the experience of browsing and discovering titles you never knew about and the feeling of being able to touch the books, tangibly, and appreciate the physicality of it, which is something an online service like Kindle cannot give you. Due to lockdown, this experience was unavailable and even now there are barriers to it – with social distancing norms and other sanitizing issues, this experience has been tainted. This is a concern of these bookstores and a loss for the readers. Champaca Bookstore, however, has attempted to find ways around it, like many others. Not only have they introduced a Book Subscription – having parcelled curated translations from the Champaca Team and a monthly book club (with Somak Ghoshal) – they have also curated an online store to bring back the pleasure of browsing and discovering, and trying to tackle the unavailability of a catalogue to discover books. Atta Galatta has also put on a similar online browsing store where people could sift through their collection and has also put on a 50% discount, keeping in mind the lack of financial resources that people are facing today, for readers who resort to online book shopping only for the lower prices; however, they also express concern about their current inability to provide specific titles on order.

Lightroom Bookstore is grateful that during the lockdown, people have inspired them to keep going. From the wonderful children’s book community of authors and illustrators to the buyers, who have not only increased the sale but also heavily promoted them on social media, thereby spreading the word regularly.

Select Bookshop, Bengaluru
Select Bookshop, Bengaluru

Mr Murthy shares his thoughts on reading habits today, and how the pandemic might affect it. He says that books are still sold at Select Bookshop, and in his view, "people are interested in varieties of books." He reminisces about his observations earlier in the days and recalls how people's engagements lay in management, technology and commerce – books on academic and technical topics. Now, he notices that "people are interested in population growth, they're interested in European History", highlighting the way readership has evolved over the years and reader interests have broadened.

It is this spirit of readership that these bookstores strive to keep alive; holding a book after you discovered it on a shelf while looking for an entirely different title – that is the beauty of walking into a bookstore. It is the experience of conversations. Select Bookshop opened after a long hiatus and to make things simpler and more familiar for the customers that come in, Mr Murthy attends to them personally. This highlights another aspect of bookstore shopping – the feeling of community. Ms Radhika also says that for Champaca, a part of their aim has been to build an engaged community.

Select Bookshop, Bengaluru
Select Bookshop, Bengaluru

Aasthi’s optimism spills out in her absolute hope for a post-COVID world in which, as she ardently believes, bookstores will survive- “Bookstores are a hub for culture, for ideas and for community and must be around.”

Ms Lakshmi references Game of Thrones with us, calling the situation “a long winter” and hopes to survive “at the end” of it. It is the loyalties these bookstores have shaped up that have been supporting them in different ways – whether it is to continue to shop, to buy gift vouchers or simply by engaging in any online activities they are planning – and it is due to this feeling of solidarity that Ms Lakshmi is sure that we all, bookstores and readers and all other businesses, will emerge stronger at the end of this, albeit maybe a bit different. Her sentiment is echoed by all Ms Radhika too, and Mr Murthy also has no plans of stopping anytime soon, working hard to keep the community going.

These bookstores are standing on the pillar of positivity, displaying a distinct sense of solidarity in these times.

People referenced:

  • Ms Radhika Timbadia, Champaca Bookstore
  • Ms Lakshmi Sankar, Atta Galatta
  • Mr Murthy, Select Bookshop
  • Ms Aashti, Lightroom Bookstore
  • Mr Ravi Menezes, Goobe’s Book Republic

***

All image credits and sources are reserved with the individual bookstores' social media handles.

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