Almost every evening I pass by the Crossword bookstore on Turner Road in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb, around the corner from where I reside. Its opening more than a decade ago was a big deal – book lovers flocked to it and there was much oohing and aahing over its size, a ground-plus-one-storey format. The books flew off the shelves and the store buzzed virtually all day, especially on weekends.
But, times changed. As Bandra warmed to Amazon, the hum from the store – the chatter of customers, the cries of excited children and the staff zipping around stacking titles and answering queries – softened by the day. Today, you won’t see more than a few people browsing through the store on most evenings. A dark cloud hangs overhead as you walk in. The store is fraying – the shelves are unpolished and old, there are way too many stacks of unsold books at the far end… it looks like a warehouse. Most browsers walk in to merely check out titles, preferring to buy them cheaper online instead.
The seemingly terminal decline of the store is depressing to watch. It makes me wonder what it would take, in the age of Amazon, for bookstores to survive.
The hammerblow and the aftermath
Amazon exploded onto the scene in 1995, almost pulverising the bookstore model. According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the number of independent bookstores in the US plummeted 43% between 1995 and 2000. The chains followed – Borders, for instance, downed shutters in 2011.
Then something weird happened: the number of independent bookstores grew a staggering 35% between 2009 and 2015, according to the ABA. This was mirrored in the UK – from 2015 to 2016 physical sales rose 8%, according to the Publishers Association there.
So, what changed? How did indie bookstores turn the tide and what can the chains learn from them?
A couple of things stand out: indies become part of the community and there is a personal touch to their service. My experience is that while chains are extremely efficient, they can get impersonal. It’s like visiting a McDonald’s of books.
Indies seem to understand instinctively that reading is an intimate exercise and a personalised buying experience matters. I buy also the argument that becoming part of the local tourism scene helps. If you’ve visited Shakespeare And Company in Paris, you’ll know what I mean. It’s bursting at the seams with tourists – so many that guards regulate human traffic into and out of the store – and almost none walk out without a bag full of books. The store has an old-world feel and some quirky turns like a resident cat whose favourite perch is a piano.
Sure, not all stores can do this but they can compete by tailoring stock to local tastes – chains can do this by empowering store managers – and making sure the staff are knowledgeable (this is a massive draw; regulars seek conversation as much as the books).
Indies – and there’s no reason chains can’t do this – should evolve into hangouts, a home away from home. They are almost tailormade for staff to develop personal relationships with customers, which is a big deal in a time when human connections seem to be decreasing. I read somewhere that they should become places where customers can grab a glass of wine or coffee, meet people with similar tastes and talk about trends and anything else that they feel like. Throw in literary talks, book signings, children’s days, game nights and neighbourhood tours (Bandra, by the way, with its villages and historic landmarks, is ideal for that), and you have a genuinely interesting, happening space. You could even dedicate a day a week to talks and discussions on a literary genre or author. If you can get the author to attend, even better.
Lastly, is there an association of bookstores in India? I like the ABA model, a non-profit collaboration that brings together stores, facilitating partnerships not just between them but also with other businesses. For instance, stores in a city can join hands to have a ‘Booksellers Fortnight’ in which they have special prices, author visits, writing workshops and days themed around genres. Such an association would enable them to share best practices too. Alongside, the association could facilitate tie-ups with restaurants that offer customers special menus or discounts. This would make a city take notice.
Lastly, the association could apply pressure on publishers for better deals.
Reading has been a lifelong passion, kept alive by the time I’ve spent in bookstores. It hurts to see them die slow, lingering deaths. I buy books online because the stores have become such dull places, but I still visit one at least once a week because I love being surrounded by paper and stories. I see hope in independent stores such as Blossom Book House in Bangalore and Book World in Pune. But there’s no reason a Crossword can’t do all of the above.
When I read about the resurrection of independent bookstores in the West, it brought a huge smile to my face. I’m hoping it happens in India too.