In post-COVID world, your book browsing habits will change
Mumbai's stores say lounging and reading will no longer be encouraged. Buyers will only be allowed limited time between the shelves
For a Wednesday afternoon, Kitab Khana is eerily still. An hour has passed, and no customer has swung by its door, even though Fort, where the bookstore is situated, a fleeting distance from the iconic Lady Flora, usually has no room to even park a car. The idle chit-chat, the slow movement of readers from one shelf to another, and the gentle shuffling of pages, has been replaced with cold silence. The first customer of the day arrives only at 2 pm. He does the quick temperature check and hand sanitising routine, but instead of diving right into the sea of books, he heads to the counter. The name of a book title is shared, purchased and he is out in less than five minutes. Kitab Khana regulars will say they've been robbed of the shared intimacy. But Jagath Tekkatte, chief operating officer of the bookstore, which opened on June 8, for pick-up and deliveries only, reasons, "At a time like this, we can't take chances."
The bookstore is currently manned by a team of two, along with a security guard. While the organisation is paying nearly Rs 3,000 daily to arrange for the commute of the staffers, their customers, who used to spend hours and sometimes, even the entire day in the spacious premises, are few and far between. A WhatsApp number has also been shared for readers to place their orders, and deliveries are couriered within 24 hours. "Opening up the store was never meant to be a business decision. Ours is a passion enterprise," shares Tekkatte. Yet, in a post COVID-19 world, where does it leave the booklover, for whom browsing, reading and lounging, are experiences intrinsically tied to a bookshop?
Poet, cultural theorist and art critic Ranjit Hoskote says the bookstore is "not just an instrumental venue, where you go to discover and buy books, it's also a social space". "You meet friends, fellow readers, and have discussions, dialogues and exchange ideas. It's a larger expression of yourself. But, like we are losing out on other social spaces due to the lockdown, this one is at stake, too."
Tekkatte admits that they have been receiving calls, especially from patrons to open the store, for private browsing. "But we have put in a lot of thought into how we can make this a safe experience for both our staff and readers." There are, however, plans to open up the store to five people at a time, starting next month. "We do have enough space, including the mezzanine, to take in at least 10 people at a time, and still maintain social distancing, but we'd like to start in a phased manner." In the likelihood of long queues, customers may not have the luxury of spending quality time at the store. "That's going to be the biggest challenge; we can't make people wait outside indefinitely, so we will have to request customers to not spend more than half-an-hour inside."
Does it defeat the purpose of a bookstore visit? To an extent, yes, feels Trushant Tamgaonkar, executive director of Title Waves. The Bandra bookstore opened to customers on June 5. Wearing a mask, temperature checks and hand sanitisation have been made compulsory. "Initially, customers were hesitant to walk in; they'd call out to our staff, and place their orders from inside their car," he recalls. But, over the last few days, people have been less wary. "Before the pandemic, they'd spend a longer time inside, but now they leave within 20 minutes. That's actually fine with us. We want them to understand the gravity of the situation. But we are not stopping them from picking up a book and reading. If I restrict them from browsing, I will put them off. After all, they have options. They can simply buy a book online."
Both, Happy Book Stall and Title Waves in Bandra are now open for readers. Wearing a mask, temperature checks and hand sanitisation have been made compulsory. Pics/ Shadab khan
Krutarth Jerajani, owner of the 73-year-old Happy Book Stall in Bandra, which despite the competition from bookstores in the suburb, survives because of the patronage it receives from loyalists, says, although he runs a tiny space, he's not had to struggle with social distancing. "Even earlier, we only had about three people visit at any given point. That has continued. In fact, parents have been coming to the store with their kids, and spend a lot of time here. Unlike fiction, you cannot simply pick up a non-fiction title or children's book, right off the shelf and walk out. Readers prefer browsing before making that final choice. And we want to give them that freedom." Granth Bookstore in Santa Cruz is also following a no-stopping-visitors policy, says Herin Keniya, store manager. "We are open thrice a week, and the response has been good. There has been a lot of bulk buying, and I think, that's because they now have the time to read, too."
Meanwhile, second-hand booksellers have also been forced to reinvent business models, to ensure that buyers continue to read. Pravin Subramanian, founder of the collective SwapBook!, says he has always tried to buy "sustainably from second hand sellers". One of his booksellers, Hitler Nadar, who had an open book stall in Matunga, has turned to WhatsApp to lure his patrons. "I think it's a fantastic idea. Seasoned readers will not let the lockdown get to them. The idea of reading ought not to be romantic as much as functional."
Irrespective of all the measures being taken by bookstores to make the visit a happy and safe one, writer and freelance journalist Suhit Kelkar feels that booklovers will miss doing the little things, which we earlier took pleasure in. "Sometimes, it is almost a guilty pleasure, where if it's a new book, you pick it up and take a whiff of the pages. I also don't see myself lounging around, soaking in the atmosphere and casting a look to see if there's someone familiar I know there."
Hoskote says that rules of social distancing can easily be applied to spaces like galleries, museum and bookstores. "So, we should try and refrain from very aggressive policies. We need to be sensitive to cultural matters." Kelkar adds, "The bookstore has never been a transactional space for me, it's a place of nourishment and sustenance. But, because of the new rules, the experience may be marred slightly. I am hoping things don't change radically, but I fear they will."
On the flip side
Earlier this week, British book retail giant Waterstones, which has stores across the UK and parts of Europe, issued an apology to artists, after some of its newly reopened branches began displaying books back to front, so that browsers could read the blurb without picking it up. The move, as reported in The Guardian, UK, had upset many in the publishing world, who felt that it made the "bookshop experience less enjoyable". Herin Keniya of Granth, says that he wouldn't consider a move like this. "I am not sure if it's a great idea. From my experience I know that readers looking for new titles, are usually drawn to the cover first. Just showcasing the part, which gives a gist of the book and not even the title, won't serve any purpose. It might put off readers."
Devangana Dash, senior designer, Penguin Random House India, says, "A lot of research and conceptualising goes into designing the face of a book, and for it to speak to a reader in once glance is a difficult, dedicated work, we book designers do. Bookstores give that tangible experience, which is precious and nothing replaces that." However, she says that if for a brief period the industry has to adapt to a new sanitised world, "where front cover design is aimed at the online sales audience, and back cover packaging is more bookstore-friendly," it should not be seen as unthinkable. "Not all books are displayed with their front face anyway, and most readers depend on the stacked spines. Blurbs of hardbacks are mostly flapped inside the jacket, and we might have to take editorial decisions to bring the excerpt on the back cover, which will also save readers' exertion to read through longer blurbs. Booksellers can use a small index card below these displayed books, giving selling points and the book's genre," Dash suggests.
Drop in average duration of time spent by customers at Title Waves, Bandra
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