World Book Day: Delhi’s good ol’ booksellers narrate their survival tales amid lockdown
Cities are made by their structures but their history survives in books and tales. And there isn’t any better guardian of history than a bookseller! While digitisation may be the indisputable future of books, there is an old-school charm and love for the written word that always brings readers to the gates of Delhi’s most loved bookstores. The old guards are now figuring out ways to survive the lockdown, and on World Book Day, they tell us what makes them stay relevant in this digital age amid Covid-19 lockdown.
As Delhi deals with a migrant crisis during lockdown, another business, started by a migrant, which draws people from all corners of the country, has been thrown into quarantine. Midland Bookstore, which was started by Mirza Yaseen Baig at Janpath in 1978 — soon after his migration from Hyderabad to Delhi — has closed its doors to its loyal patrons, like most others in the business, due to coronavirus pandemic. The survival of bookstores has been a question for a while, but is more pertinent today. “What started as one store has now turned into four outlets across the Capital. A lot of people questioned whether we will survive when e-books and social media came to the fore, but bookstores have been resilient. We will survive the lockdown as well,’’ says Mirza Touseef Baig, a third generation member who helps run the business.
While Baig agrees that the financial repercussions are immense, this is not the end of the road for this business. “We do not compete with the digital world. People come to bookstores because it’s a tradition; they want to pick up a book, talk to people around them, and then walk out having gained not just a book but an experience.’’ Baig’s optimism aside, he has also written to Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, to count books among essentials during the lockdown, and allow book stores to serve their patrons, even if it’s just for weekends.
Khan Market’s Faqir Chand and Sons book shop serves as another reminder of the past. The owner had moved to India after the partition and set up this shop in his name. Abhinav Bamhi, who is a fourth generation bookseller of this family run bookstore, believes the business will emerge unscathed after this lockdown. He says, “Even though the lockdown is a major financial hindrance right now, we are sure to emerge stronger. If there is one thing the lockdown has done, it is to bring people back to the world of reading and books. People can always go buy an e-book, but the joy of browsing books in a brick and mortar shop is unparalleled.’’ The differentiating factor is the feeling of belonging that one can return to, says Bamhi, as he recounts multiple instances of people writing to his team: ‘’We’re getting lovely messages from our regular customers saying they can’t wait for the lockdown to get over!’’
Another store that has diversified and flourished while retaining its quaint essence is Bahrisons Book Sellers, also in Khan Market. A third generation run post-partition establishment, which opened its doors in 1953, now has four outlets. Rajni Malhotra — who mans the store with Anuj Bahri — says the situation is unprecedented and requires bookstores to revise their strategy and take some precautions. “The coronavirus has definitely impacted us as our stores have been shut. That is a terrible situation for any running business to be in. There are fixed expenses, rents and salaries have to be paid, and the government has not stepped in with any assistance so far,” shares Malhotra.
These bookstores, however, valiantly defy the onslaught of internet sellers, and boast of an audience that is loyal and permanent. Most of them have taken to social media during the lockdown and ramping up their digital media presence through their independent Instagram handles, which have amassed quite a gathering!
Oxford Bookstore, one of the most frequented hubs among Delhi’s millennial crowd, also because of its cosy eatery at Connaught Place premises, was one of the firsts to tread the digital path. ‘’With stores closed and no counter sales, we have not let down our readers’ morale. We have allowed the customers to place online orders with us, and have increased our broadcast outreach with a splurge of various activities including interesting mailers and broadcasts, to keep the loyalists engaged,’’ says Swagat Sengupta, chief executive officer, Apeejay Oxford Bookstores.
Sengupta adds that Oxford has taken to launching books digitally, and feels optimistic about using the virtual space for promoting the written word through weekend storytelling by popular narrators from different cities. And Baig from Midland opines, “Digital is a separate world; us booksellers don’t think of it as competition, but just as an extension of our work. One of our regular patrons asked us to be on digital media in order to reach out to our millennial audience. People have been writing to us incessantly, asking for the next book launch or the day we’ll be open to the public again. I think it only serves to say that the tradition of visiting a bookstore is indispensable.”
Author tweets @bhagat_mallika
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