As online shopping with its many discounts and door-delivery options becomes popular Anusha Parthasarathy revisits some quaint bookstores in the city tosee if they are still the favourite haunt of booklovers
It’s true that online bookstores have had an impact on big bookstore chains across the country. Imagine then the future of small stores that are often crammed with books from floor to ceiling, whose owners have known you since you were a child and always know exactly which book you need. Every neighbourhood had one of these until recently wedged in a corner with a board that had six-digit phone numbers from many years ago. Are they being slowly phased out too?
V. Srinivasan, who took over his father’s bookstore, Shanti Books, a decade ago, is disheartened by how much his customer base has decreased. Located inside the Shanti Theatre campus on Anna Salai, it has been in business for 37 years and specialises in cinema-oriented and Tamil books. “When my father was around, customers would come even after the night show everyday to purchase books. We had at least 200 footfalls a day,” he says, “Now we barely have 100.” Shanti has a large window display, where everything from the latest best-selling fiction to Tamil books are arranged in rows to attract customers. Some passers-by stop to look at the books.
It is a similar story at M.S. Gowrishankar’s A.J. Book House, located in Vummidiar’s Complex, in a small street off Anna Salai (ironically, right next to Higginbotham’s). Just opposite the store is a larger one, offering 50 per cent discount on all books. Gowrishankar says that the book industry itself is dull at the moment. Even though his business focuses more on academic books than fiction, he says that it’s been a struggle since the Internet arrived with its discounts and home deliveries. “We’ve just been here a year though our branch in Triplicane has been around much longer,” says Gowrishankar, who is waiting for the Metro Rail work to be completed so that his bookstore is easily accessible. “But it’s still tough, online companies offer huge discounts and even they’re unable to keep it up. How will smaller sellers like us manage? Academic books are alright because not everything is available online, but we have piracy and second-hand bookstores to compete with.”
Among the city’s most popular bookstores, Giggles (inside Vivanta by Taj Connemara), though, receives a steady stream of books and customers even if owner, Nalini Chettur is rankled by the discount margins that online stores offer. “How do they make any profit?” she wonders, adding “they just do it to kill small businesses like mine.” She says the 39-year-old store continues to survive because of the personal attention she pays to her customers. “I know exactly what books they want. And they don’t come here looking for discounts, only for good books,” she says categorically.
Another problem is door-delivery with cash-on-delivery option. “Customers would search specifically for our store when looking for Tamil books or those on cinema. Even now they come, but keep asking for a discount,” says Srinivasan, “we’re also too small to offer delivery service.” Gowrishankar talks about the manpower that it needs, “No one buys at MRP nowadays and the delivery aspect is a killer. We can’t bear the manpower, transport charges, wages, petrol expenses and all the other incidentals that come along with it.”
The bright side of this story is perhaps that there are still some genres that are bookstore-friendly. “A lot of self-help translations from English to Tamil are popular,” says Srinivasan. Both he and Gowrishankar also take part in the annual book fair, and even though the crowds have thinned, there are always dedicated buyers, they say. According to Nalini, there are still those who enjoy the bookstore experience and browsing through books. A customer who walks in, agrees, “There’s a personal touch to this which you don’t get online,” she says.