In the West, you have bookstores that come attached with coffee shops. Potential customers are almost drawn in to browse, sit over a cup of coffee and read at leisure. Book shopping becomes just one of the many things you can do in these places.
Some Indian bookshops have begun taking their cue from the West. They know they have to change to survive. Although reading is a habit that's still strong among Indians, the ominous spread of the electronic media and new entertainment avenues have signalled the need for change. The shops are trying to convert the threat into an opportunity, by transforming their premises into "happening" places. Like Strand Book Stall getting author Dominique Lapierre to visit the shop to promote his books (shown in the photo above with shop owner T. N. Shanbhag)
Take the leading bookstores in Mumbai, for instance. Crossword in south Mumbai, that broke convention by making ambience a selling point, has already added a caf to a corner of its 7,000-plus sq ft shop. Being in an upmarket area, this not only helps pull in customers, it also ensures they keep coming back. Of course, there's the additional attraction of a wide collection of books to choose from, which has customers of all ages floating around, browsing or chatting. Soft music plays in the background to add the finishing touch.
"Mere bookselling is a thing of the past," says Eric Williams, manager of Crossword. "We promote book buying or browsing as a leisure pastime. We want that people should come and browse through as many books as they want. Anyone is welcome to spend as much time as they want. There is no sales person constantly hovering around irritating them. We also offer a complete reference section with chairs and tables to make our readers feel comfortable."
Crossword claims to stock 20,000 titles at a time, and, on an average, gets about a thousand customers a day (1,500 on weekends). Value addition has also seen facilities like a computerised search facility for customers wishing to locate certain titles, or the dial-a-book service -- through which any book can be delivered to a customers' doorstep at no extra charge -- being added on.
And again, certainly as part of the branding effort, Crossword has launched the annual Crossword Book Award to recognise the best in Indian writing. The award is a neat Rs 2 lakh.
It's not just the south Mumbai location that has made Crossword a success. While being in a place where Mumbai's well-heeled live helps, the shop has the added advantage of catching other home-bound executives living in the suburbs, what's counted much more is the ambience that Crosswords has created. The success of Danai, a bookshop tucked away in Mumbai's suburbia, shows that location matters, but what you do with the location matters much more.
Though Danai, with its 900 sq ft of space, is much smaller, even a bit cramped, it has made tremendous effort to create customer pull. It's worked. The shop manages to draw around 200-300 customers a day and has a regular list of customers. Fortunately for it, Danai has little competition in the form of rival book shops in the vicinity. But Danai dared to launch in an area (about a decade ago) where nobody else thought books would sell.
Veena Marthandan, manager of Danai, says, "We want to promote Danai as an avenue for family entertainment and leisure, rather than a mere bookshop." Sure sounds like a positioning statement that you'd expect from the likes of a large consumer products marketing company. Well, the shops are getting savvy!
Danai, she adds, is already a happening place for children. To attract them, special events are organised regularly -- parties, magic shows and quiz competitions, among other things. "Besides, we send mailers to our regular customers, listing new arrivals or reading events." Danai claims to maintain a comprehensive list of titles.
Reading sessions by authors and poets, book signing days and invitations to interact with visiting celebrities -- authors, singers, and even management consultants and celebrity chefs -- are catching on fast with the bookshops. For instance, in April, Crossword invited singer Shubha Mudgal for an autograph session on the release of her latest album.
Given the ambience, pace and events, these bookstores today are a far cry from those musty hole-in-the-wall affairs Indian bookstores conventionally used to be. Places where bespectacled types conversed in hushed whispers, while the owner of the shop kept a strict vigil to prevent people from spending too much time in the shop.
Not that Strand Book Stall, which has operated from P,M, Road, at the commercial heart of south Mumbai, for decades, was ever like that. Mumbaiites in their mid-40s talk of it as it was in their days with as much enthusiasm as people in their 20s do today. Even Strand is talking modern, and how!
T.N Shanbag, owner of Strand, says that even with the advent of computers and CD ROMs, book sales have increased. In keeping with the times, Strand has initiated a computer search facility, a free home delivery service for books to anywhere in Greater Mumbai. And it sends mailers to regular customers on new book arrivals.
Though the space is constrained, the attempt is to create a relaxed ambience. Chairs for browsers are placed at convenient spots. Value addition at Strand also comes in the form of a four-day delivery at home "if a customer is unable to locate a title".
So far so good. But what of the future, when online bookstores catch on in India? In electronics, the time lag between the West and India is small. Perhaps Mumbai's bookshops still have to work out answers for the new threat from online shopping, but at least some of them won't be caught napping.