How a tiny Delhi bookstore helped Indians around the country keep reading during coronavirus

Image: Quartz/Manavi Kapur
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Besides setting up unrealistic ideals of love, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks-starrer You’ve Got Mail became a timeless allegory for the charming independent bookstore.

As one walks into The Bookshop, a quaint, well, bookshop in the tony neighbourhood of Delhi’s Jor Bagh, the parallels between the popular Hollywood rom-com become more obvious. The Bookshop, like Ryan’s fictional The Shop Around The Corner, is an old establishment, run more as a family set-up even though those who work there are not related by blood.

But that is where the similarities end.

The film, for instance, did not witness one of the most severe pandemics in modern history. And unlike The Shop Around The Corner that went under, The Bookshop seems to be standing tall in the face of a cascading economic slowdown.

In a twist to the small businesses plot, this Delhi store is seeing success even as Covid-19 rages on in India. According to those who work at the store, this success has been because of their cosy operations.

Sonal Narain, managing partner of The Bookshop, and her colleague Mahika Chaturvedi run the day-to-day operations, right from stocking and selling to managing engagement on social media.

When India went into lockdown to check the spread of Covid-19 in March, the store’s all-in-one runner, guard, packaging expert, and assistant, Sohan Singh, was stranded in his village. It was a two-woman army that reimagined and managed operations during the pandemic and took the independent bookstore to all corners of the country.

The long March

“When we shut our store in mid-March on the recommendation of the Delhi government, our expectation was that we were shutting down for only two days,” says Narain. “But, of course, that was not to be.”

The Bookshop is a part of a constellation of indie bookstores in Delhi, each with its rich history and loyal customer base. Some of these, like the Full Circle bookstore in Delhi’s Khan Market, that had to shut shop and consider relocating out of one of the world’s most expensive high streets.

But during the month of March, The Bookshop’s staff wasn’t panicking. There was a sense of a finite deadline for reopening in early April, so the setback seemed temporary. “But then, we did start missing our work. There was no panic, because we have been around for 50 years, and we weren’t scrambling to meet overheads and financial obligations,” Narain says.

Once the uncertainty set in, they began thinking about what the book selling-market would look like, how people would order, and how booksellers would restock. This was, in part, made worse because for over 40 days of the lockdown, the Indian government did not include books in the list of essentials that could be home-delivered.

Come May 4, the government finally allowed bookstores to operate with restrictions and proper safety measures in place. “We did not waste even a single day and opened the store. But we had no expectations of people coming in at the time because everyone was afraid,” she says. And yet, on May 4, local residents of Jor Bagh visited the store, largely because they were locked in at home without new books to read.

“Our challenges at the time were more about getting in book deliveries from publishers. Most of these warehouses are situated in the National Capital Region, and Delhi’s borders were not open for movement.” This challenge lasted all of May.

The other challenge was to engage with readers while ensuring physical distancing.

The Instagram moment

“We have an Instagram account that was fairly popular before the pandemic as well. So we decided to focus aggressively on that for sharing our curation with a wider audience,” Narain says. “We have always wanted people to come and talk to us, tell us about themselves, discuss books, and thereon recommend titles to them. We have never been in favour of a sterile environment of a website.”

The Bookshop in Jor Bagh
The legacy.
Image: Quartz/Manavi Kapur

This, in many ways, has been The Bookshop’s biggest draw for customers, right from the day in 1970 when KD Singh opened the doors to The Bookshop. As author Nilanjana S Roy noted in Business Standard newspaper, Singh’s bookstore satiated a literary hunger among its loyalists that the city’s large bookstores could never do.

The personalised recommendations from Singh’s era—he died in 2014—have now taken a digital form through Instagram and emails. The Bookshop’s page now has recommendations rooted in current events, news about an author, or Instagram stories around genres of writing.

For instance, when filmmaker Mira Nair’s TV adaptation of the novel A Suitable Boy was announced, the bookstore alerted its followers that it has a few copies of the book signed by the “elusive” author Vikram Seth. On Aug. 5, a year since the day India revoked Jammu & Kashmir’s special status, it posted a poem from Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s The Veiled Suite.

“I would often stop by after work on my way to the Metro station, sit in a corner and just read,” says Richa Tyagi, an environmental lawyer and yoga trainer who is now based in Canada. She now enjoys their recommendations vicariously, calling their social media game “bomb.”

The Instagram engagement was a huge surprise for The Bookshop staff. “Till recently, most of our audience was Delhi-based. Suddenly, people started discovering us from all across the country.” In the nearly three months since its Instagram pivot, it has serviced states like Jammu & Kashmir in the north and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the south.

It isn’t as though the delivery model came easily to The Bookshop.

Door to door

Before the pandemic, The Bookshop only made a handful of deliveries every month, largely to old-timers in urban cities in India. There was no codified payment module, and the store would accept cheques sent over mail for the few remote orders.

Covid-19 changed all that and necessitated online payments. Narain and Chaturvedi had to get their heads together and figure out a payments platform, shunning Big Tech players like Google Pay for homegrown payments platform Razorpay.

Then came the deliveries themselves. During May, India Post was not making deliveries out of Delhi, and there were winding queues outside the post office. The Bookshop staff finally found a courier partner who had a good network across the country and was willing to pick up orders from the store.

Next up, packaging. Narain says the bookstore has always been a big believer in recycling and knew they had stored a lot of used packaging material somewhere. “We had to call Singh, our trusted man Friday, who was in his village to ask him where he’d stored the packaging materials!” she says.

In that process, they also found several unused postcards. The personal became more intimate with handwritten notes that went out with every order. These were quite a hit, according to Narain.

The Bookshop has been an anomalous phenomenon of slow, sustained success during the pandemic.

The future of a shop around the corner

Kanishka Gupta, a Delhi-based literary agent, writer, and publishing commentator, believes that Covid-19 will have a lasting impact on how people buy books.

“The pandemic is likely to cause a behavioral shift in readers because it has become almost stressful to go to a bookstore,” he says. “Anxiety and fear put a psychological, if not actual, restriction on the book browsing experience which will affect the discoverability of books especially those by debut writers.”

The fate of independent bookstores, according to Gupta, is also made worse by the fact that large publishers favour e-commerce giants like Amazon and Flipkart while promoting books.

“Publishers incessantly promote links to their books on e-tailers so that they can quickly earn the somewhat deceptive and relative bestseller tag, and grab the attention of media as well as offline retail,” Gupta explains. “Neither have they been too vocal in their support for independent bookstores, nor do I know of too many publishers who encourage readers choose indie bookstores over Amazon or Flipkart, especially when things are going well for them.”

The other spanner in the works for small bookstores is the climbing rate of the US dollar against the Indian rupee. Those like The Bookshop that are known for their international titles have been forced to sell the books at a higher rate. And the temptation to pick up a cheaper book is always present.

For now, though, The Bookshop took its strengths seriously and stuck to it.