It reads like a scene out of a thriller novel. The year is 1982. It is past midnight. Five men, maybe six, ring the doorbell of a house in South Extension in south Delhi. The whole household stumbles out of bed. All they can see through the bedroom windows are a couple of Ambassador cars parked outside the gate.
Om Arora has been running the Variety Book Depot in New Delhi for 43 years. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
On opening the door, the family finds that the nocturnal visitors have come from the office of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. And they have a request.
“I was told that Mrs Gandhi wished to present 300 copies of a book on Krishna next morning to delegates who had come for the Asian Games,” says Om Arora of Variety Book Depot (VBD), one of the oldest wholesalers and distributors of books in Delhi.
Arora’s daughter Aarti Walia, who runs Bookwise, a store that specializes in coffee-table books, at Shahpur Jat in New Delhi, recalls scrambling into a Fiat with her younger sister and mother that night and being driven to Hotel Marina, Connaught Place, where VBD had its warehouse. The men from the PM’s office were trailing them. Three hundred copies of the “requested book” were dug out and handed over to the men, who left the hotel knowing that the PM would be pleased with their night’s work.
Even if you don’t work for a political bigwig, you can still knock on the Aroras’ doors at all hours with special requests. “We have always had our home address and phone number on the back of our visiting cards. It’s a practice that my dad insists on. You never know who may need a special book at an unholy hour,” says Walia with a laugh as she lets slip that the most special book in her store’s front window throughout March was Bachchanalia, an encyclopaedia of film star Amitabh Bachchan’s work and rare photographs. “VBD had got the distribution rights, and I made sure that we are the first ones to get retail copies. We had a 15-day lead over other retail outlets in the city.”
If you are a book lover and live in north India, chances are you have in some way or the other been touched by Tekchand Arora—the founder of VBD—and his family of booksellers. Tekchand’s business started with a small shop in Kauhat, Pakistan, a cantonment area in 1935. Today, this business is the livelihood of all five Arora siblings and at least two of Tekchand’s grandchildren (a couple of others dabble in the business now and then). Between them, the clan owns 55 bookstores spread across the country, and more are in the pipeline.
There is VBD in New Delhi, the immensely popular eight Teksons outlets in the National Capital Region (NCR), 40 Book Cafés in 18 cities, four English Book Depots (EBDs) in Dehradun, including the one inside the Indian Military Academy since 1948, and two Bookwise outlets, one each in Jaipur and New Delhi. For the last financial year, Om pegs the total turnover of all the stores at around Rs30 crore.
Booked for life: (clockwise from top) Om Arora Of Variety Book Depot says authors, more than publishers, are keen to know how many copies of their book have been sold; Subhash Arora of Teksons says that author interactions and book readings at stores make little difference to book sales; Sandeep Dutt’s Book Cafés can be found in 18 cities, including Patiala, Imphal, Kanpur and Mohali; and Aarti Walia (right) and her aunt Santosh Dewan run the Bookwise outlet at Shahpur Jat, New Delhi, where the most expensive coffee-table book is a two-volume set of Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, priced at Rs62,495. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
“My paternal grandfather, Lala Narian Das, a bookseller himself and the founder of EBD, always said that selling books is a good business. It gets your bread comfortably, and earns you respect in the community,” says Om’s nephew Sandeep Dutt, a third-generation bookseller with “book trade lineage” on both sides.
Dutt, along with his maternal uncle Om, set up the Book Café chain in 2003 after 20 years of running EBD. Meanwhile, his mother and Tekchand’s eldest daughter, Snehlata, still manages EBD’s Dehradun outlets with her son, almost 36 years after she first sat behind an EBD counter.
Om’s brother Subhash Arora runs the Teksons (named after Tekchand) retail outlets and specializes in distributing children’s books as well. “I now have a tie-up with Sabka Bazaar to open Teksons outlets in their stores. We have opened our first 650 sq. ft. (only 400 sq. ft operational right now) outlet in their sector 27 store in Noida. By the end of this year we should have at least three more outlets,” says Subhash, Tekchand’s fourth born, who has been managing Teksons since 1983 after his brother Om and he split the business between them.
The one-flight walk up to the 3,000 sq. ft VBD office-cum-warehouse in Connaught Place’s middle circle is like entering a prayer hall. About a hundred framed images of gods and goddesses line the wall of the staircase. “We have put those up so that people don’t spit on the walls. Earlier we had to whitewash the staircase every month,” says Om wryly. Unlike the Book Cafés, Bookwise or Teksons, VBD is not a retail store. “We don’t encourage walk-in customers but if someone comes in asking for a book, we don’t turn them away either,” he says, surrounded by around 20,000 titles stacked from floor to ceiling in metal racks.
Om, who attends to all phone calls personally and still negotiates discount requests himself, has been in the business of distributing books since 1966. He recalls the days when the family moved to Delhi after Partition and set up a patri (footpath) stall on Irwin Road (now Baba Kharak Singh Marg). Back then, his father was the only person in India licensed to import Women & Home magazine. “We used to get about 6,000 copies, and within three-four days, all would get sold.” And there was no fixed schedule for the delivery of Women & Home shipments. “Whenever it came, there would be a long queue outside the shop and all of us had to help out in the shop during that period—either to make bundles or to help with disbursal,” says Santosh Dewan, Tekchand’s second born who, like her siblings, has spent her whole life among books. She used to at one point manage Modern Book Depot in Jalandhar and now helps her niece Walia at the Shahpur Jat Bookwise. Her youngest sister, Suman Kapoor, runs Bookwise in Jaipur.
By the mid-1960s, VBD shifted to the newly constructed Mohan Singh Place market in Connaught Place, and Om joined the business full-time after an accident that left him partially blind and cut short a career in the army. Om reminisces: “We had to travel to Mumbai in the 1960s to buy shipments because most foreign publishers were in touch with wholesalers there, plus book shipments used to come by sea. There were a few dealers in Colaba, who no longer exist, from whom we would purchase the books and then sell them to retailers in the north.”
Without extensive book lists and reviews to guide them, Om says that besides “a hunch”, they used authors’ track records to place orders. “Sure, we used to check out the book lists in Newsweek and Time, but back then there was hardly the kind of hype you see today about books and authors.” When Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers became hugely successful in India in the mid-1960s, Om decided he would buy all the copies of the author’s next book shipped to India. “I later sold the book at a higher than usual profit margin to retailers in north India,” he remembers.
Slowly and steadily, VBD’s business grew from being a shack that sold imported magazines to a wholesale dealership. And VBD developed exclusive distribution right agreements with many publishers. From James Hadley Chase and Perry Mason novels in the 1970s, Mills and Boons in the 1980s to Archie comics today, the list is exhaustive. “We started with 500 copies of Archie comics 25 years ago. Today, we distribute close to 10,000 copies for each of the 16 titles that they release every month,” says Om.
The family learnt early that if you had to make money in this business, you had to be in direct touch with the publishers. “Since the 1950s and 1960s, most of the fiction titles were being handled by other wholesalers like India Book House in Delhi. My father decided to carve a niche by concentrating on magazines and coffee-table books which dealt with art, craft, interiors, décor, travel,” says Subhash.
Tekchand’s decision to branch out from wholesaling to retailing came out of Om’s regular trips to Mumbai. During those trips, Om was fascinated by a small shop called Things in the Fort area, run by one Siloo Limboowalah. “She stocked books, cards and some beautiful things. I wanted to replicate that model in Delhi as well and convinced my father that we had to have a retail outlet too.”
In 1972, the first Teksons outlet came up in South Extension, and Subhash, who had been pursuing a career in engineering, was reluctantly hauled into the family business. As he spent more and more time at the store and at VBD, Subhash realized that bookselling was a personalized business, something that both his niece Walia and nephew Dutt strongly second. “When a customer comes back and tells you that they were happy with the book you recommended, you cannot help but feel a little happy yourself,” says Walia.
And this, Dutt points out, is the key reason why he thinks that between the two—a large bookstore in a mall vis-á-vis a smaller neighbourhood bookstore—the latter has a better chance of surviving. And even taking on online stores. “Indian society is more extrovert, more high-touch rather than hi-tech. We want to see, touch, feel the books we buy and then ask for a better discount,” says Dutt. Buying on the Web never fulfils that wish. “My son tried that route but it did not work here,” Subhash says, referring to Teksons’ online shopping store.
The other problem with big bookstores, according to Dutt and Subhash, is that nine times out of 10, the executive has no suggestions to make and no personal relationship with the customer. “In book retail, you must have a loyal customer base. I receive SMSes, phone calls, demands for books not easily found from regular customers all the time,” says Subhash.
This intimate feel of the reader’s pulse is what gives the family unmatched insight into changing reading habits. “Earlier, books on knitting, stitching did really well with women but now there are no takers for these,” says Dewan. She had to shut down Knits and Crafts, a store at Mohan Singh Place that specialized in art, craft, embroidery and stitching books, after two decades in 2005. Her clientele had dwindled.
Now books and magazines on décor and fashion do well. “We have four racks dedicated to coffee-table books on interiors and architecture at Bookwise. In addition to coffee-table books on travel and art, books in this section are our best-selling books too,” adds Walia. Om picks out Ritu Kumar’s Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, published in 2006, as among the best-selling Indian coffee-table books in recent years. VBD alone distributed 3,000 copies.
Over the last decade, Subhash has seen a boom in books on economy, management and self-help. “It is like everybody is constantly trying to improve themselves through reading,” he says, pegging the first wave of successful self-help books to the release of In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman in India in 1984. “I think Teksons sold 3,000 copies of that book in a couple of years and it changed the whole scenario for us. For every 200 copies of the latest John Grisham book that I order, I am likely to order 500 copies of the latest best-selling management or self-help book.”
Though Om says he finds the business slowing a little for the first time in 40 years, he is not panicking just yet. “With all this talk of recession, one thing people in India will do is stop buying books for the time being, but it will not be for long.” Meanwhile, his clear favourites on the Indian literary front are Tarun Tejpal and Narayana Murthy. “They are both going to go places and in the next decade I am sure Amitav Ghosh will get the Nobel Prize in literature.” Subhash is placing his bets on books that have a management/self-help slant. “Well-known authors always work, but people who will give their books an angle where a reader finds lessons to retain and use to improve themselves will work best this year.”