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FULL CIRCLE

The story of Delhi’s iconic bookstore that lost its battle against Covid-19

India-Covid-19
Priyanka Malhotra
Good bye.
By Priyanka Malhotra

Owner of Full Circle Bookstore.

The flagship store of Full Circle and Café Turtle in Delhi’s famous Khan Market has finally decided to pull down its shutters, after having made a loving home there for over 20 years. It was a particularly difficult decision for us to make, since running the bookshop was not a mere business for my family, but a way of living.

Since the outbreak and rapid spread of Covid-19 in India, most of our days (and nights) have been taken up by countless conference calls with various industry bodies and forums, the Khan Market Trader’s Association, the National Restaurant Association of India and others. As the Central and state governments go on issuing unclear and often contradictory orders, there are no clear answers, and we all seem to be groping in the dark.

How does one maintain social distancing in a bookstore with a cafe? How do tenants and landlords arrive at fair agreements in times when there is hardly any revenue generation due to the lockdowns? And how do you make the very difficult and morally taxing choice between opening up your business to stay afloat financially and keeping it shut to stop the spread of a very infectious virus among your staff and customers.

Priyanka Malhotra
Poonam Malhotra decided to curate a special platform for books, something she felt the city sorely lacked at the time.

The beginnings

The Full Circle bookstore opened its doors in the summer of 1998, in the beautiful scaped complex of Santushti in the heart of New Delhi. My mother, the publisher Poonam Malhotra, decided to curate a special platform for books, something she felt the city sorely lacked at the time. The bookstore would go on to have a wide selection of mind-body-spirit books by writers like Osho, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Louise Hay, published by my father Shekhar Malhotra’s publishing outfit Full Circle Publishing, that was set up a year before. At the time, many booksellers weren’t keen on stocking these titles, considering them perhaps too new-agey.

This charming little bookstore was designed to stimulate all the five senses. Morning and evening ragas softly played in the background, our signature naag champa incense wafted through the shelves, and a marble water fountain welcomed you at the entrance.

My mother has often talked about the interesting customers who used to visit Santushti. On one occasion she had an encounter with a handwriting analyst who came to the bookstore since he had heard that Full Circle was known for books outside the mainstream. A consultant for big companies, his main task was to analyse the handwriting of prospective employees. He asked my mother to write something on a piece of paper and then shared his observations, which, she said, she found astonishingly accurate.

The Lonely Planet India mentioned Full Circle as a must-visit place when in New Delhi.

Another time, there was a woman who came to the billing desk with a pile of books on dance and theatre. During a brief conversation with my mother, she revealed that she was a dancer. She then wrapped her sari pallu around her waist and broke into a mesmerising dance in the presence of the rest of the staff and other customers.

In just over a year since its opening, the bookstore made a name for itself with people from all walks of life in India as well as from overseas visiting it. The Lonely Planet India mentioned Full Circle as a must-visit place when in New Delhi.

The Khan Market foray

In 2000, we decided to shift to a bigger space in Khan Market since we wanted to be able to showcase and represent a greater variety of books across genres from all over the world. This flagship store housed three floors of books, music tapes and CDs, thangkas and paintings, a cosy gift section, and Café Turtle.

The ground floor was dedicated to Indian fiction and non-fiction, and international titles from all over the world. There was a special section for mind-body-spirit books, famous for its Shambhala titles, which were difficult to source in those days.

As a value addition, we started offering leather-binding services as well. I remember how the famous author Gurcharan Das would walk into our store with cartons of books from his private library to have them leather-bound. Because of the rich and varied selection of books at Full Circle, individual customers and schools started approaching us to set up full-fledged libraries for them. This is something we continue to do today, as we find the designing of such bespoke libraries to be an interesting ancillary feature to book-selling.

The signature creaky wooden staircase led us to the first floor, which had a very unique music collection with a special focus on the genres of Indian classical music and jazz. In the centre of this floor was a boutique section for gifts such as handrolled beeswax candles, brass bookmarks, all-natural boxes made of clove and other spices, and a large range of incense sticks brought in from Auroville in Tamil Nadu.

On the other side was the wooden paneled art and large format books, with a rich oak presence, and beside it the bright and cheerful children’s section with a little table and petite chairs for young readers to sit and savour books.

The second floor opened out into Café Turtle with its forest green and peacock blue décor, and a striking stained-glass wall, reflecting a range of colored light. The balcony tables were always in demand (this was before outdoor seating was banned in Khan Market) because of its breathtaking view of the sunset and the large flocks of playful green parrots.

Priyanka Malhotra
The second floor opened out into Café Turtle with its forest green and peacock blue décor.

In those days, people made time to come browse in bookstores. They would walk in with a list of books they were looking for, or they would be carrying the latest Outlook or First City magazine which had run a review of a book that had instantly made them want to buy it. Also, people were willing to wait for their orders. We would have parents and children writing down their orders in our Full Circle register.

There was great excitement in the “waiting.” I remember how on the day of release of one of the Harry Potter books a long line of customers was snaking through Khan Market. We were handing out little cups of hot chocolate and Harry Potter glasses to all the fans. This was the book-buying culture. This determined, fierce joy for books.

I have many cherished memories of our early years in Khan such as that of a backpacker from Spain who walked into our store straight from the airport, telling us how she was advised by a friend that our bookstore should be the first place she should be visiting on her arrival in Delhi. She expressed how reassured she felt after visiting us, and left with a pile of books on travel in India and of course Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

Our long-time managers Jolly and Harpreet have babysat for several parents over the years, while the latter explored the rest of Khan Market, leaving their young ones in the safety and trust of the Full Circle family. On Sundays, one could witness entire families of bibliophiles thronging Full Circle, grabbing a coffee at Café Turtle, browsing through the many books, returning to Café Turtle for a lunch of quiche, and perhaps fresh juice and finally leaving with bags full of books. It’s almost as though we were a home away from home for them and this is what our core philosophy has been from the very beginning: to offer an experience and not just a transaction.

Café Turtle came up almost organically as a sort of an extension of the Full Circle bookstore. Every morning, my mother would prepare two thermoses of cold coffee to take along to the bookstore and share it with our customers. An avid baker and connoisseur of food, she then started taking along slices of her famous midnight chocolate cake and sharing them as well. In no time, her preparations became so popular that she felt encouraged enough to start Café Turtle as a beautiful tree-top café on the second floor of the shop.

For the first few years, all the food was cooked at home in the early hours of the morning, and transported to the café in our private cars. The baking and cooking began at 6 am with my mother and her cook mixing batter, rolling out pastry dough, and getting everything ready and packed in time. In due course, a professional kitchen was set up to keep up with the growing volume of the orders.

Facing reality

We have deliberately chosen to remain a family-run bookstore, and over the last few decades our family has extended to include our loyal and dedicated store managers Jolly, Harpreet and Ashish; sales staff, our cooks Surinder and Rameh, our baker Sumrat who has been with us for 20 years, our dishwashers, servers, security guards, and finally our beloved delivery person, Misra, who scoots about Delhi with books even in the searing hot summer months. From daily store visits, curating bookshelves, to personally handwriting book recommendation cards, and even cooking up special recipes for Café Turtle, we have always been personally involved in the day to day running of Full Circle.

Over the past few years, the world of bookselling has turned upside down.

Over the past few years, the world of bookselling has turned upside down. The intimate ritual of hand-selling a book to a reader through personalised recommendations and absorbing conversations has been replaced by simple commodity-trade. Bookstores have suffered immensely with online retail giants with deep pockets coming in and monopolising the segment by offering deep discounts.

The overheads are huge for brick and mortar stores, and, as we all know, profit margins tend to be quite low in bookselling even during the best of times. We have witnessed people take pictures of books in our store so that they can buy them “cheap” online. Some do it slyly, lurking between bookshelves with a guilty look, while others are quite blatant because somehow they feel they’re not doing anything wrong.

The whole idea of buying and selling books as a “product” bothers me because books aren’t commodities that you can purchase at a bargain, but are cultural assets. They are the living minds of creative and brilliant people who have taken great pains to share their imagination and their stories with us, and all we are concerned about is a “discount.”

It also shows the value we assign to a book. We are willing to spend thousands on a fancy scarf, or Rs600 for a gold seat ticket to watch a movie, but a book that will be our loyal companion for a lifetime is too expensive even at Rs 299.

What’s often disheartening is that publishers and authors now choose to pre-sell at big discounts on online platforms before new arrivals reach our bookshelves. This just goes to show how as a book fraternity we are not very supportive of one another. If we looked at the larger picture we’d realise that we all stand to benefit if we formed a united front and started helping one other.

During the lockdown, since bookstores were allowed to open before the online retailers were given permission to supply non-essential items such as books, we found ourselves being courted by publishers who urged us to open and sell their books. What’s more, some of them were even prepared to offer us full marketing and promotional support across their own social media channels.

For a brief period of time, we started feeling as though we were in the pre-online era. Ours was the only bookstore that decided to remain closed after the government allowed all bookstores to open. It was a personal family decision that was taken keeping in mind the safety and well-being of our staff, their families, and our customers. Soon, our loyal base of customers and others from the book industry started calling and messaging us to open since they wanted to visit us and browse and buy books, especially for their children.

We then decided to start operations at our Greater Kailash 1 branch, adopting stringent methods of safety and hygiene, such as proper sanitisation of everyone who walked in and out of the bookstore, as well as of the handrail, the staircase, all shelves, the billing counter, the front door, etc. Everyone was required to wear a mask, and our staff had to wear gloves. We allowed only two people inside at a time and made sure to enforce all social distancing norms as mandated by the authorities.

In these overwhelming and uncertain times, many landlords and tenants have come to satisfactory agreements, wherein the former has waived rent for the lockdown period and even agreed to reduced rents post lockdown. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to come to a resolution that would allow us to sustain operating out of a retail space such as Khan Market, considered one of the 20 most expensive retail locations in the world according to the global property consultant Cushman and Wakefield. What added to our disappointment was the fact that we faced no issues working out such waivers and concessions for our Greater Kailash and Nizamuddin stores.

On Friday, June 5, we finished packing up the Khan Market bookstore and cafe. As I walked about the premises with a heavy heart, it felt like I was bidding farewell to an old, loyal friend, and my second home. It made me sad to see a once bustling and intellectually vibrant bookstore reduced to a heap of cardboard cartons and dismantled bookshelves.

The café was eerily silent with its tables and chairs removed, kitchen equipment all bubble-wrapped, and our miniature good-luck wooden turtle, which a customer had given us as a gift when we moved in here, looking hopelessly lost from its permanent spot on the little bookshelf.

The only silver lining to the cloud is that we will be starting a new store in a smaller but intimate space in Meherchand Market, not far from Khan Market, which is quite similar to our first store in Santushti. It makes me wonder if we have really come Full Circle.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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