How independent bookstores in Bengaluru continue to thrive

BooksHopping event at Church Street

BooksHopping event at Church Street | Photo Credit: K Murali Kumar

The Bookworm, one of the popular bookstores in Bengaluru, faced an existential crisis two years ago, when COVID-19 forced the world to shut shop indefinitely. Its main source of income was the brick-and-mortar store on Church Street. The owner, Krishna Gowda, had planned a website, but it was still under construction. Had he known, he would have expedited the process. Now, caught unawares by a pandemic, he worried about the future of his beloved bookshop, which he established after selling books on pavements. 

Then, something unexpected happened. Some of his regular customers started Whatsapping him a list of books they needed. Using delivery apps, which were functional for most of the lockdowns, he could send them their orders. For Krishna and his bookstore, this was a lifeline. After surviving the last two years, The Bookworm is now selling more books than it used to pre-pandemic.

The Bookworm’s story is not exceptional. Most of the city’s independent bookstores incredibly withstood the ravages of the pandemic and see a never-before-seen surge in sales. And, the owners we spoke to reckon the reading community’s support was vital. “They could have availed the convenience of the ecommerce platforms,” says Krishna, “Instead, they chose to buy from an independent book store. I have a great sense of gratitude for them.” 

Enduring fondness

It all began in 1905, when Higginbothams set up the city’s first bookshop on what is now MG Road. Ever since there have been several bookshops, over the following decades, that formed and fostered a reading culture in Bengaluru. The old-fashioned facade, which once used to see a few carriages and bicycles occasionally pass through MG Road, now witnesses the everyday commotion of an ever-growing city.

Boomers of the city still cherish Select Bookshop, set up in 1945. A lawyer from Andhra, KBK Rao, started it from his friend’s garage on Museum Road. The shop was moved to MG Road and, later, to Brigade Road. Rao’s son KKS Murthy, an aeronautical engineer, took over the business. The shop, despite being dwarfed by the frenzied eruption of concrete structures around it, continues its services quietly.

The Premier Book Shop, started in 1971 by TS Shanbhagh, is another place that residents in their 50s and 60s get nostalgic about. It was a favourite haunt for several writers from the city. When Shanbhagh closed operations in 2009, it evoked eulogies from all quarters of the city’s literary circle.

Blossom Book House and The Bookworm, both set up in the early 2000s, continued the legacy of Bengaluru’s independent bookstores. More stores sprouted one after the other across the city. About 10 of them, however, popped up on Church Street alone, making it a bookshop hub of sorts. “I’ve not seen anything like this anywhere else,” says writer Anita Nair, “The Charing Cross in London used to have all these old book shops. But this proximity of having all bookstores on one street makes Bangalore unique.” 

Fellow novelist, Zac O’Yeah, believes Bengaluru can become “the world’s bookshop capital.” The BooksHopping event, which he put together with writer Shatrujeeth Nath, was an extension of this belief.

“Bookstores can be an politically relevant place for people who are concerned with what is happening in the country. ”Guruprasad, Aakruti Books

Readers meet writers

During the last weekend of May, Zac and Shatrujeeth, with their many writer friends across genres and languages, went to six of 10 bookstores in Church Street. Some of the renowned writers from the city including Ramachandra Guha, Anita Nair, Jeet Thayil, Anjum Hasan, Nisha Susan, Samhita Arni, Kannada writer Vasudhendra, and translator Chandan Gowda participated. There were neither sponsorships nor promotions, there was just one agenda: to discuss their love for books and bookstores with readers.

Watch: Bengaluru’s enduring affair with books and bookshops

“As a writer, during such events, I feel like I am in my natural habitat,” says Anita, “People whom I have never met walk up to me and ask me how I knew their stories. They connect so much with my stories that they feel I’m telling their stories rather than writing something out of my imagination. That makes me happy because I feel like I’ve understood the shared human condition.”

These informal writer-reader meetups on bookshops, Zac reckons, can change the face of literature. “We want more people to replicate it across the world. There are many countries where bookshops have vanished. India, especially, Bengaluru has a few that are worth saving.”

On both days of the event, the bookstores were packed. They were alive with anecdotes and rife with discussions and debates. These informal gatherings highlighted an important point about independent bookstores: they are not mere places of commerce.

Not just a store

In an era where you can buy books with a few clicks or taps, are bookstores actually relevant? If we remove all the romantic notions attached to them, do their existence serve any purpose? Do we need them at all? 

Short answer: Yes.

“Bookstores have a larger role to play than merely selling books,” says Guruprasad of Aakruti Books in Rajajinagar. “It can be an politically relevant place for people who are concerned with what is happening in the country. The kind of books you display, the kind of books you suggest, the kind of discussions that it can generate becomes important.”

Aakruti Books invites writers about caste, gender, among other social issues for discussions with their readers. Unlike the Church Street bookshops, which predominantly feature an English-speaking crowd, places like Aakruti Books place more emphasis on regional languages. “Kannada is well-represented in South and North Bangalore. But being a cosmopolitan city, we should also have space for other languages like Urdu, Tamil, etc.”

According to Zac, who’s been a travel writer, bookshops can be a window to the culture of a place. “For instance, I got to know Bangalore through the writings of Lankesh and Shivaram Karanth.”

Bookstores are also places of unexpected finds. Once when Guha was searching for out-of-print political pamphlets at Select Bookshop, he pulled out a document from a pile, hoping it was Gandhi’s. But it turned out to be a hand-written copy of his grandmother’s horoscope.

“You will find all the books you want online. But what about the books you never knew you wanted?” asks Zac.

The serendipitous discoveries, it seems, are not just limited to books. Mayi and Krishna know several married couples who first met at Blossom Book House and The Bookworm. That’s the thing about bookstores, especially the ones in Bengaluru: here, people find love.  

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2022 10:11:37 pm |