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An endangered species

Twenty-three years ago, when Pritesh Savla decided to follow his passion and start his own bookstore, he did not imagine there would be a time when readers would almost stop walking in to browse and buy.

mumbai Updated: Mar 06, 2011 00:42 IST

Twenty-three years ago, when Pritesh Savla decided to follow his passion and start his own bookstore, he did not imagine there would be a time when readers would almost stop walking in to browse and buy.

But around four years ago, footfalls at Savla Book Distributors in the heart of Girgaum gradually began to drop. Phone calls for placing orders grew rare, and finally, a year ago, Savla was forced to sell half of his floor space to the Archies gift shop franchise.

The cause of his woes — and those of several other independent bookstores in the city — was the birth and rapid boom of online bookshops such as Flipkart.com and glamorous franchise outlets such as Landmark and Crossword.

“Our sales have reduced by 50% in two years, and with rents increasing every year, survival has been a struggle,” said Savla, 59, sitting in a corner of the narrow bookstore that was once just an aisle of a larger shop.

The son of an accountant, Savla began working as a sales executive at Kemps Corner’s Warden Book House Library soon after his Class 10 exams in 1969, because books were where his heart was. But after successfully launching and running a vibrant business through the 1990s, today’s new book-selling trends have left him baffled.

“Online portals offer discounts that we cannot even hope to match. I don’t understand how they survive, but do they have to kill our market?” asked Savla, who fears he might have to shut shop entirely in a few years, as was the fate of Kalbadevi’s New and Secondhand Bookstore earlier this month.

Bandra’s Happy Book Stall, launched in 1947 as a magazine stall, is also weary of mammoth book businesses, even though it “comfortably” survives in a suburb housing two Crossword outlets.

“We are capable of selling more books too, but big book chains succeed because they have strong financial backing to help them with marketing,” said Krutarth Jerajani, 28, owner of Happy and the grandson of founder Jamnadas Jerajani.

Besides a set of patrons who have been regulars at the store for decades, Happy’s most loyal clientele today are visiting non-resident Indians. “We are happy with our personal approach with clients. Customers tell me that in bigger bookstores, salesmen are often ignorant about the books they stock, while we know every single book in our collection,” said Jerajani.

Jeru Mango of the 19-year-old Danai Book Store is just as proud of the “personalised care” she offers her visitors. The Khar store is Danai’s only free standing bookshop, though Mango owns 11 smaller boutique stores in hotels around the country.

“When we launched, residents in the area came up to me to say thank you,” said Mango, adding that though Danai once hosted book readings with authors such as Vikram Seth and William Darlymple, the effect of the large chain bookstores cannot be ignored. “Now all we hear of are readings by big authors at big places and the little bookshops are left out.”

The owners of the new Kitab Khana, however, have no fears or insecurities about being sidelined by large book franchises and online stores. Though an independent bookshop, the store has been founded by the Somaiya business group and covers 4,000 sq ft in a heritage building in Fort.

“We are strictly a bookstore and don’t stock any other paraphernalia sold in the chain stores,” said Amrita Somaiya, co-owner of Kitab Khana, which was launched on Thursday. “And unlike online stores, our customers can sit here in leather chairs to read, feel and smell books.”