Home >Mint-lounge >Features >The successful book store you haven’t heard of

In the Mumbai of the late 1950s-early 1960s, a Gujarati porter worked at the Victoria Terminus railway station for almost a decade. He quit to marry and moved to Bengaluru to work as a peon at a pocket book distribution company. Over the years he rose through the ranks and was made store manager when the company set up shop in Chennai in the mid-1960s. By this time he was entrenched in the book trade and interacting directly with distributors. In 1967, encouraged by his wife, he broke away and started selling books out of a small paan shop in Gandhinagar, Bengaluru. That was his entry into the book-store business.

Nijesh Shah, who is narrating this tale about his grandparents, says their dream was always to educate the next generation because they were not educated. The book store was named Sapna for that dream and because they once ate an amazing meal after a particularly tiring day at a Chennai restaurant called Swapna.

Long before Barnes and Noble realized it would have to sell more than just books, Sapna Book House—now India’s biggest book chain by revenue and space—had started stocking everything under the sun. Alongside books of course.

At its 40,000 sq. ft store in Gandhinagar, the gateway to 1980s’ Bangalore, the National Film Development Corporation of India’s Cinemas of India DVDs jostle with party supplies, water bottles, plastic globes, Kannada music, Learn to Speak a language DVDs, Philips headphones, shiny clutches, photo frames, ugly vases, torches, stationery, baby products, chocolate, textbooks for every possible exam, idols and anything else you can think of (they recently stopped selling cosmetic jewellery).

New releases from John Green, Amitav Ghosh, Harper Lee, Alex Rutherford, Anuja Chauhan and Ravinder Singh are all in attendance. They have Avirook Sen’s Aarushi, Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field and The Complete Tales Of Peter Rabbit. You may not find a single Philip Roth novel and they don’t stock “long tail" authors like Shakespeare (they are available on order) but they do have the recently released Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall and all the Tintin comics you could possibly want.

This is a typical mix across 14 book stores or 350,000 sq. ft of retail space in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (three more stores will open in Karnataka soon). If you live outside these two states you probably haven’t even heard of Sapna Book House, though it has been around for a while, only starting to add a store or two every year in the last decade. You’ll soon spot stores in Pune, the birthplace of Crossword.

Don’t be hasty in mistaking Sapna Book House for a book store run by people who know nothing about books. The chain’s merchandise manager, an ex-India Book House employee, clearly has a theory (probably accurate) about what most urban Indians read.

Nijesh Shah, a third generation member of the family that runs Sapna, says they see the chaos in the publishing world as an opportunity. “We look at a book store as a community-building exercise. It’s about being with your family in one place. That will never go out of style."

I know it’s not on any literary pilgrim’s Bengaluru Book Stores itinerary. You won’t find that unbeatable mix of old and new that you are guaranteed at Blossom Book House or the smaller Bookworm down the road. Select, which celebrated 60 years last month, was where scientist C.V. Raman apparently shopped. India’s oldest book store, Higginbotham’s, is represented here too.

The city also has its share of glorious new indie readaways, all opened in the last few years. Atta Galatta, which started as a regional language book store, has evolved into a literary living room; after success at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, Paperback set up shop at the Ranga Shankara theatre; and Lightroom will always be my favourite children’s book store. Aashti Mudnani, who founded it two and a half years ago, says social media has affected sales in recent months. “It’s really changed things for us. People used to come for reccos but increasingly they are getting that information off the Internet," she says.

Incidentally, I know you wept tears of blood when Delhi’s Fact & Fiction announced its impending closure but indie book stores have seen a revival around the world. In the US, for example, registered indie members of the American Booksellers Association increased from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014.

Now don’t wrinkle your nose because I’m discussing Sapna alongside your favourite book haunts. This “book mall" will certainly be in the reckoning if there’s ever an award for most successful book store in post-independence India.

When Sapna set up a publishing unit in 1980, it also entered the education business. “We would take the curriculum from universities, pursue professors to write guides for us and then sample out titles to students free of cost," says Shah.

The business grew dramatically, and in 1985 they moved from an 800 sq. ft store to a 10,000 sq. ft store in Gandhinagar. “Everyone mocked us. People came to see what this giant book store was selling and they found only books," says Shah. The Gandhinagar store expanded fourfold by 2005.

There are lots of reasons Sapna is successful. It has large-format stores; its education business accounts for 80% of online sales and takes up 20% of in-store space; and it has an online presence in addition to its stores.

The Sapna Group dabbles in everything from self-publishing to distribution to e-books and audio books; it has a very successful Kannada language publishing unit and also produces Tamil titles. The company even exports children’s and educational books to Ghana and Nigeria and is working with the Ghanaian government on the school curriculum.

Newer stores have play zones for Wii buyers; and by the end of this year you will be able to explore the 15 million titles available through a digital kiosk in stores.

“There’s nothing unique in the model. It’s a very heavily textbook-oriented store. A general book buyer will not really go there to look for books," says Hemu Ramaiah, who founded the Landmark chain of book stores in 1987 and sold it to the Tatas in 2005. Ramaiah still believes there’s room for a huge book-store model, one whose owners are not scared to hold inventory. “In-depth inventory is completely missing from any book store in India today. It’s a huge tragedy. Everybody who’s a good reader is being let down," she says.

In their heyday, some of the large- format Landmark stores were known to do an annual business of 50 crore on their mix of books, music, films and stationery. A decade on, Landmark seems almost certainly on the verge of shutdown. “I feel sad that they couldn’t take the idea forward," says Ramaiah.

Who knows when someone will set up this giant dream book store where we can lose ourselves in the racks every Sunday. Until then we have Sapna Book House.

Also Read: Open for business

Priya Ramani will share what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

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