Delhi bookstores turn new chapter as better sales, lower rent push growth

Jan 18, 2023 06:43 PM IST

In 2010, Ajay Jain, a travel writer and photographer, opened Kunzum Travel Café in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village

In 2010, Ajay Jain, a travel writer and photographer, opened Kunzum Travel Café in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village. The quaint café, which became quite popular with travel writers, artists, and photographers, shut down during the first lockdown in 2020. But Jain was not deterred. Last year, he launched five bookshops across the National Capital Region between July and October – Kunzum Books – to the surprise of many observers since the future of bookstores seemed bleak a few years ago.

Bahrisons has registered a 15 percent jump in sales at its stores(HT Photo/Sanchit Khanna) PREMIUM
Bahrisons has registered a 15 percent jump in sales at its stores(HT Photo/Sanchit Khanna)

“Our travel café was a great success and we used to organise more than 200 events in a year. This encouraged me to open full-fledged bookshops that doubled up as a community and cultural spaces,” says Jain. “The plan behind opening five stores in a short period was to make a mark and instantly capture the imagination of book lovers,” he adds.

Not just Kunzum, several new bookshops have opened across Delhi/National Capital Region (NCR) recently and many Delhi bookstores are opening their outlets in other cities, too, in what looks like a post-pandemic boom for brick-and-mortar bookstores – a trend observed in many cities across the world.

“I think book sales are booming because, during the pandemic, many people re-discovered the joys of reading, finding it as a sort of therapeutic. Worried about their increasing screen time, many parents encouraged their children to read books,” says Aditya Sharma, a children’s writer.

Lower property and rental prices, too, help explain the growth spurt in physical bookstores.

In October 2020, Bahrisons, one of the city’s best-known and oldest booksellers, opened an outlet in Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj. Last year, it opened a store in Chandigarh and on Sunday, the family firm launched another outlet in Kolkata’s Park Street.

Similarly, Om Book Shop, another family-run Delhi-based chain of bookstores, launched a bookshop in a Bangalore mall in December and another in a Dwarka mall in 2021. In 2020, Oxford Bookstore, a chain owned by the Apeejay Surrendra Group, opened new stores in Noida and Bhubaneswar.

“Bookstores are now easier to open simply because rentals have become affordable after the pandemic,” says Anuj Bahri of Bahrisons, which has its flagship store in the Capital’s Khan Market. The pandemic, he adds, has also led to a spurt in book sales due to a rise in readership.

“Our sales are up 15% nationally as compared to 2019-2020,” says Bahri, whose family firm now owns nine stores across the country of which six are in Delhi/NCR.

Many of these new bookshops also have cafes in collaboration with various brands. The bookshops and cafes, he says, are complementary businesses, helping bring footfall and absorbing a share of the rentals of his stores, some of which are spread across 3,000-5,000 square feet space.

While Bahrisons has tied up with Blue Tokai Coffee Roastes, Oxford Bookstore has opened its own cafes.

Ajay Jain says he has not regretted his decision of opening five stores one after another within a few months. “We have almost broken even in six months’ time. While all our stores are doing well, sales are highest in our Greater Kailash-2 and Vasant Vihar stores,” he says.

Jain has hired a team of 40 people to run the bookstores — community engagement managers, events managers and content managers, among others. His bookstores, he says, aim to build a community of readers through events such as book signings, poetry sessions, poetry readings and art competitions for children. Some of these are paid events.

On Saturday, the bookshop, in collaboration with Penguin, organised a talk with Daisy Rockwell, who translated Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker Prize winning novel Tomb of Sand. “All our events are aimed at encouraging people to buy books from bookstores. People never stopped buying books, it is just that they started buying online. You have to give people a reason to return to the bookstore as often as possible,” says Jain. “Our stores focus on the curation of our books collection, ambience, cultural experience, and community building. We want to create a large vibrant community of readers, writers, publishers, and book designers,” adds Jain, whose bookshops have organised more than 400 events in the past six months.

Kunzum Books has organised over 400 events at its outlets in the past 6 months (HT Photo/Sanchit Khanna)
Kunzum Books has organised over 400 events at its outlets in the past 6 months (HT Photo/Sanchit Khanna)

“The best thing about these events at bookstores is that they serve as a space for meeting fellow book lovers. I have made many like-minded friends at these events,” says Sharma, the children’s writer.

Children’s books are among the best-selling titles followed by self-help and mental-health books at most of these bookstores. This is different from the pre-pandemic era, when self-help and management books were the highest-selling titles, say the managers of many bookstores.

Another change from the pre-pandemic era is that a lot of children and teenagers now visit bookstores often accompanied by their parents, say shopkeepers.

Encouraged by the rising sales and the success of events, Jain recently bought the upper two floors of his shop in GK-2, one of which will serve as a dedicated space for events, which Kunzum intends to turn into a source of revenue. “We have bought all the properties where our stores are located. We did so because we wanted to create a business that lasts generations, and owning property suits the economics of bookselling. What helped was a post-pandemic decline in property rates,” says Jain, who has invested more than 20 crore in bookstores. “I do not come from a business family. My father was an engineer working for the government. We sold our property to invest in these bookstores.”

Sanjay Mago, managing director of Om Book Shop, which opened two new bookstores in 2021— one in DLF Place Mall in Saket and the other in Vegas Mall in Dwarka – says malls are the best places to sell books. “It is because malls attract large footfall and our policy is to open bookshops only in malls,” says Mago, adding, “Malls help introduce books to a larger customer base. In fact, many of the shoppers in malls who walk into our stores have never been to a bookstore before. Now, quite a lot of them are our regular customers.”

He adds, “At our shops, there has been a big rise in sales of children’s books followed by self-help and management books.”

Om Book Shop today owns 11 bookstores across the country, including in Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore, where it opened a store in December last in Phoenix mall. His bookshop also sells stationary, which Mago says helps generate extra revenue.

Bahri, who has also opened a bookshop in Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj, says, “A lot of mass market genre writers sell better in our mall outlet than at our Khan Market store.”

Swagat Sengupta, chief executive officer of Oxford Bookstores, says footfall at the stores has increased exponentially in the past year. “Post-pandemic, we have witnessed very steady growth and have seen some never-before sales figures. Children’s books and mental health books are among the best-selling titles. We have a very carefully laid out expansion plan,” says Sengupta.

In the past two years, the company launched two new outlets, one in Noida and the other in Bhubaneswar.

Many booksellers feel these trends indicate a brighter future for brick-and-mortar bookstores. “More stores mean more readers and sales. I believe an exciting new chapter for bookstores has just begun,” says Jain.

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    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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