In college, a love of reading drove Mumbaikar Hiten Turakhia and his friends to haunt bookstores that allowed them to read for hours at a time. “Then, one of my friends, inspired by the US movie rental site Netflix, suggested we start our own online library, and that’s how Librarywala was born in August 2000,” explains Turakhia, managing director of Librarywala.com.
Turakhia is just one of a number of people labouring to make reading affordable and convenient by operating online libraries. The principle behind these ventures is simple. Customers log on to the website, register, select a membership plan and choose books they want to read. The libraries then send the books through couriers or delivery vans, and pick them up again when the books have been read.
Turakhia and three of his friends set up Librarywala by investing their savings of a decade and approaching relatives to help fund the venture. To drum up interest, the four partners distributed leaflets outside malls, libraries and bookstores.
Once things got going, they went very well. “We achieved operational break even in one month of operations for every branch,” explains Turakhia. Librarywala’s three branches – Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune – boast large collections. Their Mumbai catalogue numbers 9,000 titles, while the Bangalore library has 8,000. They also stock multiple copies of books and add 150-200 titles every month. “We have over 35 copies of Shantaram,” grins Turakhia, who has seven years of experience in software and hardware technologies. They also plan to expand to Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Librarywala’s dedication to readers is a byword. “We have a request-a-book facility and one member asked for Dilbert 2.0, a collection of comic strips from the series, which cost Rs 4,200,” says Turakhia. “So we got it for him.” The library is also planning to enable subscribers to use SMS to order books.
Vanishree Mahesh from Bangalore opened Easylib.com in July 2001 when she returned from the United States and could not find an equivalent to the public libraries she was familiar with. “I was working with IBM and could have got a transfer if I wanted,” she explains, “But I thought the time was right to open a library.” Mahesh set up her library in Koramangala, and also designed a website to accompany it. “I made sure the interface was simple, and easy to load,” she says. “A number of my first members were people from IT.”
Since Easylib allows people to both walk in and order books online, it’s doubly accessible to customers. “I sometimes see kids who have finished their exams walk into the library in their uniforms and pick up books before going home,” Mahesh recalls happily.
She is dedicated to her venture. “I operate this as an old-fashioned library,” she says. “Readers aren’t allowed to keep books for as long as they want, because I think they should be driven by the fear of finishing a book. If someone wants to keep a book for three months, they should just buy it.”
There are no multiple copies at Easylib, but there is an 18,000-strong collection, with 100 to 200 books added every month, all chosen by Mahesh. “I subscribe to 10 newspapers and 20 magazines and read every book I buy, even if it’s just five to 10 pages,” she says.
Read and write
Filmmaker Aarti Jain and her software architect husband Manish Kumar began Friendsofbooks.com in September 2008 in Delhi, driven by the same lack of access to good libraries after the US. The couple clubbed together their own collection of around 500 books and used their savings to open the library.
Jain says that the response was pleasantly surprising. “We sent emails to 200 people at 1 am, and by 11 am the next day, we’d already got hits,” she says. “We have over 400 members and 3,500 books and both numbers are growing.”
Kumar and Jain choose books from distributors and from second-hand stores if the books are in good condition, adding to the library every week. They also scan the Net, take readers’ suggestions, add books that make it to the New York Times bestseller list, and also those that win awards.
Another USP is the fact that they courier books to other cities, like Madurai, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Bhopal. “Once the subscriber has read the books, the onus is on them to courier them back before we send them another parcel,” says Jain.
Reader response is so good that Jain doesn’t worry that borrowers won’t return books. “In fact,” says Jain, “we have one subscriber who always covers the books we send him. When we thanked him, he shrugged it off.”