Into the pages of memory: how bookstores in Kochi’s railway stations are battling to survive

Grabbing a comic or a magazine before boarding a train is no more the norm

Updated - December 09, 2017 05:44 pm IST

Published - December 09, 2017 04:00 pm IST

Rajendran V.V. of Sree Venkiteswara Book House often had to drink his coffee cold and miss out on his lunch. He hardly complained, for happy readers kept trooping to the “book store”, then a mobile unit, on Platform No:1 at the Ernakulam Junction Railway Station. That was nearly eight years ago, and Rajendran had just been employed at the unit. Four months back, the store shifted to a permanent space on the platform. Sporting a fresh coat of white paint, the shelves lining its walls neatly stacked with books, and a wooden cabinet with serried rows of magazines, comics, and newspapers, the snug store is every bit a bibliophile’s haunt. But sadly, not many readers come looking and Rajendran has time enough to chat.

“When we shifted here, we thought we would get more customers. But, that has not been the case. In fact, in the past six months, there has been a steady decline in sales. The sale of magazines has been hit, even newspapers do not sell as much,” he says, pointing to the bundles of the day’s papers left unsold, well into the afternoon. “ It’s the mobile phone,” his voice trails off as he gazes at travellers on the platform, poring over their devices, staring, swiping, typing, hardly raising their heads to look around. With telecom players offering lucrative data packages and free Wi-Fi being made available at stations, books and magazines are no more a travel staple.

On Platform No:2 of the station, Ponnappan, who manages a secondary outlet of Sree Venkiteswara Book House, echoes the sentiment. “Youngsters do not read newspapers at all. The information they want is available on their phone,” he says. Only three years back, the sales at the shop left the newbie Ponnappan intimidated. “I used to literally shiver, all scared and nervous, for it was not easy managing customers and handling cash and keeping a watch over the shop, all at once.” He allows a glimpse into the steel tiffin box in which he keeps the day’s earnings – the note of dismay is unmissable.

Suresh (name changed on request) was barely 18 when he was initiated into the business nearly 25 years ago. Profits were significant then, so much so that he did not take up two jobs that came his way – one with a multi-business conglomerate and the other a government job. His family too discouraged him from taking up those jobs – here was a job that gave him a lot of freedom with his time and also raked in money. “Twenty-five years ago, who could have predicted it would come to this?” he asks. It was the television and its soap operas that first ate into his profit. It affected the sale of women’s magazines tremendously, he says, as he reminisces of a time when a popular women’s magazine was brought to the district in truck-loads, and sold like hot cakes. The mobile phone came next, and made a major dent in the sale of magazines. The availability of cheaper internet, he considers, the final nail. “Maybe another year…,” Suresh leaves his sentence incomplete.

Bleak is how N.A. Abraham of the famed Higginbothams bookstore too describes the future. The bookshop, which was originally situated at the Harbour Terminus Railway Station at Willingdon Island, was shifted to Ernakulam Junction railway station in 2004 after train services to the harbour station were suspended. Abraham too has memories of a time when books and magazines would arrive in ships, and Higginbothams stocked magazines of various languages, “unavailable in other bookstores in the city at the time”. Now, the store has stopped stocking several regular publications for want of customers, says Jerome T.G., who helps Abraham at the store.

Restrictions on selling

“Earlier, we would sell magazines and newspapers in trains when they called at the station. Now, there are many restrictions on selling in trains, which has also affected our profits,” says Abraham. Rent, electricity and other allied charges are also worrying these entrepreneurs and their employees.

With travellers gleefully tapping away at their mobile screens, train journeys have stopped being boring, says Ponnappan. “Those buying magazines, papers and books at the station were only looking for a way to pass the time. With entertainment at their fingertips, books have lost their significance.”

The idea of waiting at railway stations has also undergone a sea change, says Suresh. “Earlier, people would reach the station well in advance. Sometimes, they would have to wait for a long period if their train was delayed, and they’d invariably walk to the nearest bookshop. Today, they check train timings on their phones and reach the station just in time for the journey.”

Grabbing a comic or a magazine before boarding a train is no more the norm, it is rather the exception. His bookshop used to be surrounded with readers – people jostling for space, elbowing each other to browse through the latest magazines, children sticking their heads in to catch a glimpse of their favourite comics, says Suresh as he looks at the emptiness around, from his seat behind the counter. “That era has ended,” he says.

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