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Mumbai's iconic stores, brands share their stories of survival

As Rhythm House readies to shut down, owners of iconic city spaces share their tales of survival in the face of constant churn

GuideLast week, as one of Mumbai’s favourite music destinations, Rhythm House’s owner revealed to mid-day that they would be shutting down soon, they joined many others (read: Bastani, Samovar) who bid adieu to Mumbai. Yet, and thankfully, many have braved the storms of change, and are still going strong by using either innovation, out-of-the-box thinking or staying put.

The first Akbarallys store at Fountain opened in 1897
The first Akbarallys store at Fountain opened in 1897

it was revamped into Akbarallys Men in April 2015. Pics courtesy/Akbarallys
It was revamped into Akbarallys Men in April 2015. Pics courtesy/Akbarallys

Akbarallys: Retail therapy
In early 1897, the Khorakiwalas started India’s first department store, at Flora Fountain, selling a range of items from pharmaceuticals, dry fruits and electronics to imported products. A family venture, Akbarallys (founded by Fakhruddin T Khorakiwala) soon became a flourishing chain with multiple outlets across the city. Some of our earliest memories of the store include its popular Santa Claus parades and Chacha Deepak handing out presents during Diwali. Exactly 118 years later, in April 2015, Aiman Khorakiwala, (third generation owner) daughter of Juzar Saifuddin Khorakiwala, remodelled the brand to Akbarallys Men. The 10,000 square feet store provides an extensive collection of clothing and other necessities for men: sourced from premium Indian and global brands. It also features an in-house barbershop catering to quick grooming and styling needs.

“The decision to transform Akbarallys was taken sometime mid-June in 2014. We realised that the retail scenario had changed drastically and we needed to adapt to more contemporary times. We ran an analysis of our sales back then and our men’s clothing section alone contributed to nearly 25% of our sales,” shares Aiman Khorakiwala, director, Akbarallys Men. “Several factors have contributed to massive changes over the years. The most important has been the retail boom and the coming of large format shopping destinations such as malls, department stores, branded stores and specialty stores. Akbarallys was always known for legally importing and selling branded products — it was the only destination in Bombay (now Mumbai) where one could find these brands. The 1980s saw a retail boom in India — branded products filled the market and brands started opening up chains. Now, we are witnessing the online shopping boom,” she adds, recalling how letting off a few staff during the transformation wasn’t an easy decision.

The brand hopes to have more stores across India by 2016; this, despite cut-throat competition in this segment.

Strand Books Stall: Getting Mumbai booked
Opened on November 20, 1948, the Strand Book Stall became a landmark for book lovers across the city and beyond. “We have seen so many changes — the arrival of radio, Doordarshan, cable TV, the Internet and now, social media and reading devices like the Kindle, all of which affected people’s reading habits,” shares Vidya Virkar, the owner.

Fort’s Strand Book Stall prides itself in customised service for its loyal clients
Fort’s Strand Book Stall prides itself in customised service for its loyal clients

“Today, people get tired after reading snippets and blogs, and so, long form reading has suffered. The number of walk-ins at the store has dwindled. People come back because we meet every customer requirement. If we don’t have a title, we order it and deliver it across. We have started buying out some titles to offer it exclusively at the store,” shares Virkar.

Deepak Talkies: New show
Deepak Talkies, previously known as Saraswati Talkies since its inception in 1926, was started by Tokershi Jivraj, and succeeded by his son Sahadev Shah, until he passed away in 1998. His wife, Shobhana Shah held the reins until 2007, when their son Punit joined the family business and understood the weakness of running this business in dire state of inhabitation. In 2013, they shut the hall down after a family discussion, and went for a total revamp.

Deepak Talkies now Matterden. FILE PIC;
Deepak Talkies now Matterden. FILE PIC

While the facade hasn’t been tampered with, its interiors have been spruced up with state-of-the-art technology. “The once-known place that hosted grand premieres, showed art house cinema and live performances, had lost its sheen. The business of films wasn’t supportive either,” recalls Punit Shah, current owner Deepak Talkies.

However, their fortunes changed after they began screening international films, art house films, and associated with foreign embassies. Today, Deepak Talkies has two brands under its banner. The first is an association with Enlighten Film Society to call this place, Matterden CFC, which showcases classics, while White Elephant Arena is an in-house brand that organises events. Pranav Ashar, founder Matterden, elaborates, “Today, the space has a a different energy, as compared to old theatres where things are set in a template.”

Shemaroo: Digital killed the video star
Shemaroo started operations in 1962 as a book circulating library. In 1976, the video cassette was released worldwide, and arrived in India by 1978-79. After having established a loyal clientele for books, they began cassette rentals. Its owners decided to get into content distribution in 1986; around the time the brand went national. Later, they became aggregators and bought rights to movies. “Technology moved from CDs to blue rays. Now, it is Internet-driven. People consume content on smartphones, tablets, apps, and set top boxes; we have the rights and a content bank across timelines and genres,” shares Hiren Gada, director, Shemaroo.

“Technology has been a great enabler and catalyst for us to reach out to people faster, better and cheaper. We have about three million views on YouTube, daily. The biggest challenge is to realise what is too early and what is too late. If you are too early, you over-invest in something whose time hasn’t come, and if you are too late, you run the risk of getting obsolete,” he suggests.

Ram Ashraya, Café Madras and Oven Fresh: We are like this only
“While so much has changed in the food business people prefer familiar tastes that reminds them of home. This nostalgia keeps bringing them back to us,” says Amarjeet Shetty, owner Ram Ashraya.

Ram Ashraya in Matunga
Ram Ashraya in Matunga. Pic/Shadab Khan

The restaurant that opened in 1939, has added a few dishes to its original menu but they haven’t made any major changes to woo new customers. Yet, it continues to do roaring business. Café Madras celebrated its 75th anniversary recently. Second genration owner, Jagdish Kamath says, “We have been approached by several online aggregators to start delivering our products but we aren’t keen to enter this space. Over the years, we have managed to create a niche. People take the effort to come here because our quality has remained the same. Our prices are low since we don’t spend extravagantly or invest more than we can afford. Also, we don’t want to risk serving food that may get cold, or be in situations where we might not have control over the quality of food that is delivered,” he believes. They might consider selling some of their packed farsans online, soon.

Café Madras in Matunga celebrated its 75th anniversary last month.
Café Madras in Matunga celebrated its 75th anniversary last month.

Oven Fresh, a mainstay in Dadar, started in 1993 and has survived the rise of patisseries and bakeries in the area. “We use our experience in the industry to learn and develop products every day and perfect our culinary skills,” says owner Ronak Mehta. “We have started delivering online and improved our products to stay relevant.”

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