Book shops, with declining sales ~ in the contemporary scenario of a profusion of Internet digital connectivity devices ~ are reducing their presence in shopping complexes and premier hotel arcades. Where people walking past tended to drop in to explore, or look for a recent title reviewed in weekend newspapers and being talked about, hardly anyone now halts outside bookstores.

The sheer delight of browsing unquestioned, in book shops like Ramakrishna and Sons of yore, relocated in Connaught Place from Lahore after the traumatic 1947 Partition, is still alive in elder citizens’ minds. Those were days of tolerance, courtesy, gentility and grace. No eager beaver shop assistant trying to prove his initiative to the proprietor at the till ~ hounded a potential browser or buyer, as he crossed the threshold.

Even the myriads of owner-manned book shops in Nai Sarak, off Chandni Chowk in Delhi, that have changed hands and line of business, are now nostalgic memories. Nai Sarak has lost its character. After three generations operated the wellstocked book shops with a sense of pride in their wide knowledge of text books and alternatives, impatient new generation owners have thought it prudent not to lose time messing around with widely-cast nets for procurement of new and out of print books, let alone dabble in buying and selling pre-used books.

Those book shops are now divided into cramped cabins, due to divisions among owning families. Yet, buoyed by the multiplicity of Literary Festivals and readers, who believe that authors commune with them when they settle down to read, Delhi’s Atma Ram and Sons, in Kashmere Gate, Galgotia Book Sellers in Connaught Place and The Book Shop in Jor Bagh Market, graciously tended now by late K D Singh’s family members, retain their loyal clientele.

Love of books

Displaced from Karachi in Sind by the August 1947 Partition of the Indian sub-continent, Vidya’s father T N Shanbhag set up a modest Strand Book Stall in 1949 at Strand Cinema premises in south Mumbai. That kiosk grew into a popular place for young people meeting up. By sheer dedication and long working hours, he relocated in 1953 to vastly larger premises in the ideally central Fort area. He offered discounts the year round saying, “We are not selling books, but sharing knowledge.”

T N Shanbhag often gave books to persons he sensed could not immediately afford to pay ~ with just a tenuous assurance that they would come and pay, when they could. He had empathy for them as he had seen hard days, following the loss of livelihood and homestead in the upheaval of the Partition. He wanted to extend his affinity for acquiring knowledge ~ and money was not a consideration!

At a time when book stores were beginning to feel the strain of competing against the emerging e-commerce portals, sourcing new and pre-owned books from across the world, at large discounts and effecting speedy home delivery, the Strand Book Stall in Mumbai and Bangalore remained popular. T N Shanbhag was awarded the Padma Shri for his personalised promotion of reader interest ~ and diligence in reaching out to procure books they had come looking for. No earnest money was sought from buyers.

The successful “book stall” entrepreneurial venture by a struggling refugee from traumatic sectarian conflict in Sind, was a cherished family legacy nostalgically honoured, when the name was carried forward to the outreach at the up market Manipal Centre shopping complex in Bangalore. With a comprehensive selection of titles in a large book store, events were generously hosted to bring readers together.

Before leaving, to shore up her illustrious late father’s flagship book shop in Mumbai, Vidya Virkar observed, “It’s sad, but pragmatic. Despite decline in sales, we tried keeping the Bangalore book store open for as long as possible. But peoples’ interest in physical books has reduced drastically ~ and it was just not feasible to keep things going.”

Recalling earlier times when Bangalore, due to its cosmopolitan and “quality” clientele, was conducive for book shops to flourish, she said, “We used to get a nice blend of customers, most of them young and very enthusiastic about reading.”

Changing habits

The readership scenario has changed with the droves of fresh Internet technology graduates thronging in from all over the country, to staff the growing numbers of foreign and Indian software development firms. Today’s upwardly mobile IT personnel work in shifts round the clock, under severely competitive and distressingly high-stress conditions.

They have scarcely time to read anything non-technical and unrelated to fulfillment of their career goals. They are high achievers ~ and do not work just for a salary. Physical books on general subjects have become pass√© ~ there is information overload, coming to them electronically. Even newspapers are losing circulation, as happenings of the day are capsulated and delivered as “alerts” on their smartphones.

Besides, they constantly scroll their touch screens for whatever they wish to look for. As Vidya Virkar candidly commented, “Everyone has a smartphone, tablet or Kindle now and they do most of their reading online. Piracy hasn’t helped either ~ you can download PDFs for almost any book from the Internet. Also, with SMS, Facebook and Twitter being the norm in terms of communication, people have a very short attention span ~ they don’t like reading too much.”

Falling footfalls

Book shops in India’s IT centres had till recently bucked the trend of declining sales ~ while watching in dismay the drop in footfalls and just occasional ringing of their cash registers. As the growing legions of wellpaid but high stressed “techies” in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mysore, Dharwar and Gurgaon do not have time to read, their smart phones keep them updated with what they feel they need to know.

Coming from the science stream in schools and colleges ~ under intense strain over years to secure high marks ~ course books and preparations for unending competitive examinations have distanced them from general reading, unlike those with Liberal Arts education, who can still indulge in English Literature and History.

Once flourishing book shops in Bangalore ~ that hosts the country’s largest conglomeration of Internet-based software development industries, outsourced Internet service providers, support organisations, ancillaries and myriads of entrepreneurial “start up” hopefuls ~ are experiencing severe decline in revenue inflow.

They even had carafes of “first filter” coffee and cookies with seats in browsing corners, to encourage customers to tarry a while, sit and read and perhaps decide to buy. Large chain book stores selling a wide range of titles have been downsizing their presence from leading hotels and shopping malls, during the last five years ~ and even closing.

The latest casualty is the iconic Strand Book Stall in Bangalore cantonment’s prestigious Manipal Centre, where the eminently knowledgeable-owner Vidya Virkar was always at hand.

There were well-attended book readings ~ often with the authors present on release of new titles ~ and the annual discount sales were events discerning readers looked forward to.

(The writer is a freelance journalist)