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A travelling library for India

20 Indian states. 10,000 km. 90 days. Two bright minds from Odisha are using a mobile library to take the joys of reading to the furthest corners of India

The past few years have been a mixed bag of experiences for the publishing industry in India. While there has been an increase in the number of books being published and literary festivals to showcase authors and their titles, financial crunch and popularity of e-stores have led to brick and mortar bookstores shutting shop. A lack of physical bookstores coupled with an inefficient distribution system results in books not reaching people beyond some urban centers. While the building boom across urban India has created pockets of luxury, and residential complexes boast of gyms, restaurants and meeting halls, libraries or reading spaces are inadequate.

Satabdi Misra (right) and Akshaya Rautaray (second, right) with the Walking Bookfairs Book Truck in Kerala. They arrive in Mumbai later this month
Satabdi Misra (right) and Akshaya Rautaray (second, right) with the Walking Bookfairs Book Truck in Kerala. They arrive in Mumbai later this month

So, where can book lovers browse through books, and pick their favourite titles? Walking BookFairs, a unique reading initiative was set up by two young minds who decided to do something about it. In mid December 2015, the duo set out on a road trip with a plan to travel across 20 Indian states and cover 10,000 km in 90 days.

They are expected to arrive in Mumbai on January 27-28 on a book truck with thousands of titles, part free library and part subsidized by heavily discounted books on sale. The truck will cover also cover Delhi, as well as small towns like Rayagada, Koraput, Ongole, Nellore, Ajmer, Kurukshetra and Kannauj. The road trip begins and ends in Bhubaneswar, the home-town of book lovers Satabdi Misra and Akshaya Rautaray, who manage the Walking BookFairs.

School children in Gudur, Andhra Pradesh read story books at the Walking BookFairs Free Library
School children in Gudur, Andhra Pradesh read story books at the Walking BookFairs Free Library

From Odisha for India
Walking BookFairs began in 2014 in a small Odisha town called Semiliguda with the simple mission to take books to people. With a background in journalism and advertising, Misra chose freelancing for the freedom to write what she wanted, and Rautaray, who worked with a well-known bookstore chain was looking at a more meaningful calling. Misra says, "We wanted to bring books out of their elite spaces in to the public domain, where a farmer could look at a book without being intimidated, and feel it without the compulsion to buy a book."

Book lovers of all age groups at the WBF book display on Elliots Beach Road, Chennai
Book lovers of all age groups at the WBF book display on Elliots Beach Road, Chennai

The duo was able to source books from a distributor in Bhubaneswar and brought them back in a bus to Koraput. Misra adds, "We started with filling our backpacks with books and carrying them to villages and towns nearby to display them on footpaths and at bus stops. Since we had to walk with the books, we thought of the name 'Walking BookFairs'."
The duo invested in a second hand van that helped them access remote urban and rural locations. "We wanted to take books to people who had never seen storybooks or colourful picture books," says Satabdi. They toured all of Odisha, and according to Misra, "In rural Odisha, we displayed low-priced Odia books, Odia translations of world literature along with some basic English titles for school kids."

In Pondicherry, the duo met with Manoj Das, Sahitya Academy Award-winning author, who was appreciative of their efforts
In Pondicherry, the duo met with Manoj Das, Sahitya Academy Award-winning author, who was appreciative of their efforts

Reaching out
After their Odisha tour, Walking BookFair decided to go national, and their 'Read More India 2015' book tour has found support from HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Parragon; they also stock books from a number of independent publishers like Speaking Tiger and Duckbill. Pan Macmillan provides support through their CSR initiative, and national sales head, Vijay Sharma says, "This is the first time we have witnessed such a project. It is commendable in such times when book selling has taken different channels [online/offline]. No one is bothered about B, C and D town customer potential. We aim to fill this gap."

A mixed bag of books makes up the almost 4,000 inventory that the van displays. These include children's books, picture books, literature, fiction, autobiographies, cookbooks, poetry, classics, Booker winners, popular novels and translations. According to Misra, "In urban areas, low-priced romance novels are popular, and we also try to make the young aware of good writers and their works. Most are unaware of good writing." Walking BookFairs does not sell grammar, essay, general knowledge or course books. The duo donates books to less privileged schools to encourage them to set up reading spaces. Since they source books directly from publishers, it also enables them to pass on big discounts to their customers.

Bring the book home
For the India tour, Misra and Rautaray receive recommendations on where to set up the van, but the journey goes beyond opening shutters to let readers to browse books. The travels give the duo insights into what people wish to read, and an opportunity to connect with local authors. They also conduct story sessions in schools, colleges and cafés.

Walking BookFairs feels the impact and onslaught of digital purchases, both in their bookstore in Bhubaneswar, as well as the book van. Customers browse through books at their van, and then order the titles the like online because it is marginally cheaper.

Misra wishes they would realise that they are the real losers, "Readers lose out on browsing and reading which can only happen in a real bookshop. One can visit a bookshop, read as many books as one likes, get to know of new writers, new books, talk to other readers without actually having to buy a book." With the funds they gathered they hope to support their bookstore in Bhubaneswar.

They hope to inspire other booklovers to start similar ventures. Satabdi sums up, "More people need to fall in love with books and create spaces to read, write, think and talk without fear and without boundaries." And, in Mumbai, where space is at a premium, travelling bookstores such as Walking BookFairs might be the way forward!

Log on to: Walking BookFairs (Facebook) to track their route

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