Delhi’s once-popular book hub Nai Sarak struggling for survival these days
Advent of online bookstores, rise in book piracy, a flourishing photocopy culture and an increase in number of foreign publishers setting up shop in India are behind the book street’s slow death.
Charanjit Singh stands on an aluminium ladder while rummaging stacks of old, yellowing textbooks arranged on rusting iron shelves inside his bookshop at Nai Sarak in the Walled City.
A musty smell permeates the dimly lit place that boasts thousands of books on subjects such as medicine, engineering, accountancy.
Singh’s shop is much sought after for second-hand books.
“I am looking for an accountancy book, which I have to give to a customer from Afghanistan. A lot of our school textbooks are quite popular there. People come to my shop from all across the country and abroad,” says Charanjit, as he pulls out an old book. “My family has been in the business for the past 80 years, but now I want to exit it. The growing congestion in this area and easy availability of books online have killed our business,” he says.
Nai Sarak, Delhi’s oldest bookselling and publishing hub, is struggling for survival. And the shopkeepers here, who have thrived for decades by buying and selling old text books, blame it on a number of factors — the advent of online bookstores selling second-hand books, rise in book piracy, a flourishing photocopy culture and an increase in number of foreign publishers setting up shop in India, making textbooks available at cheaper prices.
The shopkeepers at Nai Sarak say that their sales have dipped by 60 to 70 percent in the last few years.
The market’s crowded footpaths today have many small book stalls — stacks of books arranged on rickety tables and stools — that see very few customers these days.
One such makeshift shop is owned by Pramod Verma, 57, who said he had been selling books in the market for the last 40 years.
Though only ‘10th pass’, Verma considers himself an authority on textbooks.
To prove his point, he rattles off the names of writers of medical books, most of which are foreign. “Here you get a good medical book for Rs 2,000, which otherwise might cost Rs 12,000. But these days only a few students come,” says Verma.
As he speaks, Verma is interrupted by a student who asks for a pathology book by a particular writer. Verma does not have the book but promises to arrange it in 20 minutes. The student is not willing to wait, though. “The new generation has no patience at all,” he mutters to himself.
Ask Verma what it takes to be a good textbook seller and he says: “It is about understanding how courses are changing and keeping track of new books and writers. There is no textbook that cannot be found in this market — of any writer, any edition or any subject.”
But shopkeepers resent people like Verma. They say roadside stall owners have betrayed them by first learning the tricks of the trade from them and then ‘illegally’ setting up their own stalls in front of their shops. There is fierce competition among booksellers in the market.
And just like a tourist spot, you will find many touts here who take you to hole-in-the- wall bookshops in the narrow back alleys of the market, promising to get you books at heavy discounts.
Nai Sarak became a hub for books after Partition when a lot of the publishers and booksellers came here from Lahore. In the 1970s, a lot of them shifted their offices to Daryaganj, which by the 1990s became India’s biggest publishing centre. Gradually, many shops closed down in Nai Sarak, many shutting shop in the last year alone.
With sales dwindling fast, many shopkeepers are trying to innovate. They are not only offering massive discounts, but many like Osbeer Singh also give students written assurances of buying back books at 50% the price.
Osbeer Singh, who runs Public Book Depot, one of the oldest bookshops in the market, says his father set it up in 1948 after the family came to India from Lahore. “We have been in the business since the 1920s but have never seen such bad times. I do not know, where have all the students have gone?” he wonders, before answering his own question. “I think they are getting better deals online.”
Singh is quite proud of the legacy of his bookshop and his knowledge about books. As we talk, a student of literature, hands him a slip scribbled with the names of a few novels, including Ice Candy Man. But neither Singh nor the student knows the writers of the novels. Singh tells the student—who is busy watching a video on her mobile phone —that she will have to try and find her books elsewhere.
Satish Gupta, who runs Agarwal Book Centre with his brother, says business is down by 60 per cent and he blames publishers for it. “They have been increasing the prices of text books, promoting piracy. People try to buy pirated books instead of coming here. The government should fix rates for textbooks,” says Gupta. He says he is trying to reinvent his business and has launched a website that sells books online. “It is an experiment to survive, but I know I cannot compete with the likes of Amazon,” he adds.