Sunday, August 30, 2009

Small is still BEAUTIFUL

Small is still BEAUTIFUL
Large chains with glitzy stores don’t hold a bookmark to cosy bookshops with their reader-friendly discounts and personal touch
Prajwal Hegde | TNN

Memories are made of these: warm smiles, a firm nod and sizable discounts. As the older generation of Bangalore’s book lovers recount the good ol’ days, the younger ones can only listen in wonder. Some five months after T S Shanbhag brought down the shutters on Bangalore’s favourite bookshop, Premier, the septuagenarian still wakes up to calls from customers, urging him to reopen the outlet. In the tug-of-power between one-off bookshops and bigbuck, multi-city bookstore chains, the reader reigns. And, she seems to be swaying in the direction of the smaller units.
The trend is a reverse sweep of the Hollywood blockbuster of the late ’90s, You’ve Got M@il. Unlike in the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan starrer, standalone & smaller bookshops in Bangalore, especially those that’ve pitched tent around the MG Road area —- Gangarams, Blossom, Bookworm and the Magazine shop —- are thriving. Breakthrough business practices have won them exclusive clientele, giving bigger stores like Crossword, Landmark, Strand, Odyssey and Oxford, some with corporate backing, food for thought.
What works for the smaller outlets, despite their cramped and dingy interiors, is the pricing and the camaraderie the reader enjoys with the store manager or owner. However, nothing quite compares to a 90% discount. So much so that a place like Blossom, that introduced to Bangalore the unexplored world of second-hand books, is selling something like 22,000 books a month, and Gangarams, with a clientele that’s a striking blend of the young and the seasoned, regularly tops 30,000 books a month.
The success of the smaller bookshops is the story of their origin, which has little to do with business sense and everything to do with an innate understanding of what a reader wants.
Mayi Gowda is an amiable 30-something, an electrical engineer and a book lover. When he passed out of UVCE almost a decade ago, he struggled on the job front. Much to the disappointment of his family, which hails from Mysore, Mayi took a chance with the 1,500 books he owned, setting up the Blossom Book House in Brigade Towers in January 2001. Fittingly, his business blossomed. He has since moved to a 4,000 sqft outlet on Church Street.
About the time Mayi was giving the city’s bibliophiles newer, cheaper options, Krishna, a pavement bookseller, waded into the second-hand book market. Krishna, who graduated in Commerce from an evening college in the city, promptly set up Bookworm, 1,600 sqft in area, split between shops on MG Road and Brigade Road. The USP that Krishna brought to the competition was giving his romance novel section a circulating library twist. He lends out books for an unlimited period for as little as Rs 7.50. Students and young professionals, mostly of the fairer sex, make a beeline to Bookworm over the weekends, and the rush has only increased in these recessionary times. Ravi Menezes, who opened Goobe four months ago, is using the outlet both as a bookshop and a library. For just Rs 250 a month, a member can read to her heart’s content.
In the world of the written word, magazines provide the glitz. The Saits, originally from Richmond Town, were quick on the buzzer. Expanding on an idea triggered by his father Mohammed Hussain Sait in the ‘60s, Yahya launched Bangalore’s much talked-about Magazine store. What started as a news stall in a 200 sqft, virtually on a footpath near K C Das, is now a 2,000 sqft outlet which shelves back issues of the glitziest magazines from around the world.
“When we started, people said that with the advent of TV and the internet, the book business itself would suffer. So, where would there be a market for back issues of magazines?” Yahya said. “With this store, we’ve shown that there’s more than just an interest, there’s a passion for reading in Bangalore. There’s always space for more bookshops, because the range is that great, you can never really cover it end to end.”
Prakash Gangaram, owner of what’s now the oldest of the standalone stores on MG Road, said, “It’s all about having the right book at the right time — be it educational or general books. It’s not about how much area you dedicate to children’s books or any other specialized area, it’s what the reader wants at that moment. Do you or don’t you have it? That’s our brand of business, we know our readers.”
The giant chains, also known as lifestyle stores, simply for the range on their shelves, have made an art of organization and professional presentation, making the exercise of book buying an experience in luxury. Not only are the books laid out nicely across an impressive physical area some of them have adjoining coffeeshops, much like the Barnes & Noble and Starbucks experience in the United States, leaving you with a sweet taste in the mouth and mind space for clarity of thought. They also deal with stationery, CDs and DVDs, giving the customer a complete experience under one roof.
However, long before the Tata’s backed Landmark, that has everything from kitchen accessories to cutting-edge technology and books under one roof, and Crossword, now in 12 cities with over 50 outlets, came into the picture, Higginbothams kickstarted the idea of bookstore chains in India some 160 years ago. With several stores in South India, they were pioneers in giving greater shelf space to children’s books.
Strand Book Stall, the standard for good rates and great range, is the bridge between the two fronts of the book business. Fuelled by the passion of the smaller outlets and the vision of the big chains, Mumbai’s favourite book shop arrived in India’s Silicon Valley in the mid-’90s and literally grew with the Bangalore reader. As an idea, Strand, with its bi-annual book festivals and fabulous discounts, works in a culture where the frills are often relegated to the margins.
“The aim was to expose the city to the Strand brand of reading,” said Vidya Veerkar, who authored Strand’s Bangalore outlet. “When we started, there was the old Bangalore reader, the one who enjoyed reading classics, and also a young floating population that came to the city with the IT boom, keen to explore the world of books. In Bangalore, we’ve grown with the reader.”
Bangalore’s big-city status and growing commercial clout is best likened to a glitzy cover. The cover, however, is no way to judge a book. Turn the cover and you’ll find a city that puts its money where the best deal is.
In and around the MG Road area is still the most sought-after destination for Bangaloreans and tourists, especially on weekends. For office-goers in the area, it’s particularly convenient. So, despite the Metro construction, which has eaten into both parking space and convenience, and the lure of the mall environment, books are flying off the shelves like hot cakes in the city centre.
Movies are the best advertisement for books. New releases like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Da Vinci Code and, more recently, Angels & Demons and even Confessions of a Shopaholic has made more people across all ages, take to books.


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