Yet another book store in Pune is holding a “going out of business” sale, ready to down shutters when the current stock, some 40,000 or so books, is exhausted. Narendra Chandan’s BookWorld, in the basement of a glass-fronted building on the busy Fergusson College Road, is the third independent book store to shut down in the past year, marking the change of reading habits as readers move from buying books in a store after a good long browse, to either reading them on a handheld device or ordering them from websites.
Pune is not alone (which is no comfort for book lovers) where independent bookstores could soon become an urban legend. This is a worldwide phenomenon as society gets wired and people have less and less time for the leisurely activities of yore. Browsing in a book store, which did not necessarily mean you bought a book, would qualify as one such old world leisurely activity.
The trend was triggered by Manney’s Booksellers, Pune’s pre-eminent book store, which announced mid- January 2012 that it would down shutters finally on 31 March, marking the end of an era. Manik Mani, the owner of the iconic store, did not cite the usual reasons for shutting down. He told his loyal customers, friends and reporters that he needed to retire and not having a succession in place, preferred to shut down rather than allow the family-owned store to be run another.
Then came the announcement from the Aundh-Baner area, that Twistntales, the community bookstore, set up as a labour of love by Janaki Viswanathan, was going to shut. Within weeks, Viswanathan had sold most of her inventory. Meanwhile, BookWorld has an on-going sale, offering discounts on all books, for a while now. This, Chandan said, has allowed him to reduce inventory from some 150,000 books to the 40,000 or so. Since this is a proprietary business, he can afford to spin it out: he is in no tearing hurry to shut shop and find storage for these books.
Does this mean that reading or buying is going out of fashion? Neither, Viswanathan said categorically. “Operating costs, in the form of power, transport, salaries, real estate, are rising while volumes are not. Volumes have stayed flat, not risen, while other costs have gone up. Over the past two-three years, several distributors in Pune have closed down which means books have to come from distributors in Mumbai or Delhi. Rising fuel costs translate into higher transport costs for us. People haven’t stopped reading or buying books: they are just doing it differently,” she said.
Chandan can almost pinpoint the time he saw sales volumes drop. “From January last year, we began to see a drop in sales. Where we used to sell 200-300 books a day, we are now down to 100-150 a day, despite a sale being on. Our average revenue was in the region of Rs.2-3 lakh per month,” he said. He added, “It was the advent of the tab(let) that has hit us the most: the tablet format is convenient for reading and carrying around. Ever since the tablet has become affordable, we have seen a big shift away from bookstores.”
In a telling comment on the impact of e-tailing, Viswanathan said if there were no Internet, she would have had a list of pre-release orders that would be three times it is now! Sales of bestsellers have been hit hardest, she said, as people order off the Net.
There is more to a bookstore than merely selling books, she maintained. “A bookstore is a liberal space for all ideologies. This will be missed specially by young children who could come here and browse through books before selecting something. They will now have books ordered for them from the websites, which offer huge discounts, instead of the touch, feel, buy experience of a store: which is sad,” she said.
Taking the place of the bookstore will be the online blogs, online publishing offering an opportunity to the small publisher who is also likely to be squeezed out of the market by the big discount e-tailers. Is this closing of independent bookstores an opportunity for libraries and for bookstore chains? As one industry insider maintained, books account for around 30% of total sales in chain stores where they also sell gift articles, music and games. So, they are not picking up the slack caused by independent retailers going out of the market.
Small publishers will definitely be impacted by this gradual demise of independent bookstores since these outlets stocked their books which mainstream distributors would not. Bookstores could also evolve into niche stores, stocking specialist books or collectors’ items while the small, tucked-away-in-the-hard-to-find corner bookstores will continue.
What happens to these independent bookstores once they close? Being family-owned, Manneys had said it would lease out the 3,000 or so sq. ft of prime real estate to a bank. However, a clothes store is the likely future for BookWorld since Chandan will be able to command a monthly rental of anything upwards of Rs.80,000 although he is in the basement and the space is not very large. Viswanathan, who also owns her modest-sized store, is still not sure what she will do with it once she finally downs shutters in a fortnight’s time.
Sadly, the loss of these bookstores with their personalised service and human touch, will be a big loss for the community.