Literary Review

Bengaluru: ‘How can bookshops like mine compete with online giants?’

Prakash Gangaram at his store in Church Steet.   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

The Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bengaluru was once famous for fashionable things, of another kind of course. On most Sundays, as a child, I accompanied my father to one such spot on the road: Gangaram’s Book Bureau. The lights would dance around the name of the shop inviting all the passers by to leaf through the many floors in the bureau. We would go together until the doorstep; then I had to fend for myself. My father would pore over books in the management section picking out titles that would adorn his office library later. Inspired by him, I picked up How to be a Professional Journalist. I was nine. My dad was sure I would not read even a single page of the book but he bought it for me nevertheless, in a symbolic encouragement of his child’s dream.

More recently, I went to the shop — this time as a journalist. The shop is no longer on M.G.Road. When construction for the metro rail began in 2007, the rent went up six times the amount, pushing shops like Gangaram’s to set up house elsewhere. Newspapers and fans of the store wrote and lamented at the plight of the book haven. But, paying a ridiculously high rent was out of question. So, they moved to Church Street, in 2011. Incidentally, the move was also a marker of the book shop's change in fortunes.

Walking up and down Church Street, I realised that I simply could not find Gangaram’s. I asked for directions and a man promptly pointed towards a building. It is only after I stood before it and craned my neck upwards that I realised that this was Gangaram's indeed. The dancing lights were gone and in its place was a tiny nameplate. Church Street, though the backstreet of M.G.Road was not quite the same thing. I went up to the second floor where the shop is now located.

My first question to Prakash Gangaram, the owner, was about the signboard. “The owner of this building has forbidden us from putting up a bigger board. He says it would deface the building and says that he will take us to court if we do not follow his rules.”

Even before I asked him questions, Gangaram had answers ready, almost as if he had rehearsed it and would continue to until it is time, finally, for the shop to seriously think about its future. “Yes, most bookshops like ours are not doing well. More than 50 per cent of our business has been affected.”

Gangaram knows the market rather well. He traced the decline of bookshops like his to the ascent of online chains such as Flipkart and Amazon. Stopping short of calling them bullies, he explained their business model. “First of all, they have the advantage of a virtual space. Parking will never be an issue for their customers. Second, they follow a plan wherein the goal is to grow, not to make profits. They sell books dirt cheap because they don’t mind losing in the short run as long as they’re growing. Eventually, they’ll sell their company off to someone when it is time. How can bookshops like mine compete with online giants who promise door delivery, low prices and even a book return facility? They dictate prices and want to kill competition.”

Citing the infamous Amazon-Hachette controversy, he illustrated these virtual companies’ will to outdo their competition. Last year, publishing house Hachette got into a dispute with Amazon over e-book pricing. It was alleged that Amazon, unable to settle its dispute with Hachette, ensured that all Hachette books on their website were subjected to artificial purchase delays. “So, if you ordered a Hachette book, it would appear as if it was out of stock,” explained Gangaram.

In such a competitive climate, bookshops like his are simply a misfit. Such shops have books that are obviously more expensive than online shopping and, moreover, expect the reader to personally arrive to make a purchase. “Asking the Government to support us also makes no sense. There are far more pressing problems that it would rather take care of than the plight of a 1000 book shop owners,” he said. Though, he brought up the example of the French Government that has ensured that no online giant gets a monopoly over book business in the country. “As far as our business model goes, we are not here to lose money. We’d rather downsize, cut our overhead costs and become a small shop hosting books for our regulars and loyalists,” he said.

Gangaram was a small shop at the entrance of Kapali theatre in Gandhinagar, one of Bengaluru’s oldest localities. In 1977, it was a 450 sq.ft space that went by the name Bangalore Book Bureau. In an attempt to get the Cantonment’s readers to the shop, Gangaram suggested to his father that they move to M.G. Road. They did in 1997 and the business, though initially slow, thrived for a long time. “I don;t know what it is. You could call it a kind of passion. To tell you the truth, I have not read a single book in my life. But, if you come here and ask me for a book, my mind can immediately draw up a picture of the cover, the colours and designs on it. It is like a doctor’s profession. Ask him to write about the symptoms and cures of all conditions at once, he may not be able to. But if you describe a particular set of symptoms to him, he can spontaneously recall the type of illness, its possible manifestation and cure. This is about interest and passion. We just want to do this. There is no other reason,” he said.

I asked him if I could glance at the bookshelves once. I did and left the shop with a lump in my throat. Gangaram’s had encouraged me to dream 16 years ago. What about its dream that began more than 40 years ago?

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 6:58:34 AM |

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