Pandemic chokes bookstores, but books survive

Bookstores crumble as books' sales move online

Culture

January 18, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Pandemic chokes bookstores, but books survive

At the heart of Delhi, in Connaught Place, stands Amrit Book Co, an 84-year-old bookstore which is trying to tone down the effects of the onslaught of e-commerce sales (MIG Photos/Danish Mohamed)

The lockdown that began in India on March 25 pushed many businesses into their graves. Bookstores were amongst worst hit as books had been classified as non-essential. Almost a year later, bookstores are still trying to recover from the shock even as they try to safeguard themselves from various competitions like online stores and e-books.

The little nooks and crannies in bookshops had long been the abode of bookworms until the stores were shut suddenly due to the onset of Covid-19 pandemic. While booklovers tried to do with digital alternatives for their reading, bookstore owners had little choice but to sit out the lockdown and wait for the government to allow them to reopen their stores.

At the heart of Delhi, in Connaught Place, stands Amrit Book Co, an 84-year-old bookshop. Today, it is one of New Delhi’s oldest surviving bookstores as it tries to tone down the effects of the onslaught of e-commerce sales and other pitting factors. Moreover, low footfall with high rents have created a lethal dose for such stores. The lockdown dealt another powerful blow to the store, especially due to its unique client mix.

“Foreigners used to form a major part of our customers as our store is located at this popular tourist spot (Connaught Place). Due to the lockdown, we saw a 30 pc decline in our sales. Although it has been recovering since May because of our local customers, the recovery is slow,” says the owner.

Teksons Bookshop, South Extension, witnessed a 50 pc decline in sales in 2020 due to the pandemic-induced lockdown (MIG Photos)

Today, Amrit Book stands alone as one of the few survivors of the storm that wrecked many other bookstores in the Connaught Place circle. ED Galgotia & Sons and New Book Depot used to stand erect in Inner Circle where the Swedish fashion retailer H&M blooms today.

The impact has been even more dramatic in bookstores elsewhere in Delhi. “People do not prefer visiting stores anymore due to the pandemic and they also do not want to spend on books. The business has been down by 40-50 pc since the lockdown,” says the owner of Teksons Bookshop, South Extension, New Delhi.

Though lockdown proved to be the biggest shock for the business, but the downhill journey of bookstores had begun much earlier, especially since the debut of e-commerce. Since the entry of Amazon Kindle, e-books, audiobooks and pirated PDFs, buyers have cut down their visits to bookstores. The launch of Kindle by Amazon in 2007 ushered an eBook revolution. Costs of printing, binding and shipping were eliminated and people were willing to read in any format, if did not cost as much as a printed book. Although printed books still contribute to 80 pc sales, eBooks have effectively disrupted the publishing industry. The global eBook market is predicted to increase by 15 pc in the next five years, with Asia Pacific region to witness the highest growth in this period.

A report by Nielsen Book Research for India said in 2020 where more than two-thirds of their respondents began reading more books since the lockdown was started, but only 6 pc visited the bookstores since the lockdown was eased. While the trend in sale of printed books versus eBooks did not drastically change in 2020, the readership of eBooks has increased to half that of the print books. A startling fact that was issued by the Nielsen Books was that seven in ten respondents now prefer to buy their books online.

Today, the bookstores are trying to mitigate the losses by adopting new techniques. The Oxford Bookstore in Delhi once caved in to the pressure created by the decline in sales. It then resurrected itself at the Connaught Place by opening an indoor cafe, serving snacks and other basics to the book-lovers and visitors. The Oxford Bookstore at Kolkata has delved into creating an experiential space for its readers through the Cha Bar in its premises. The Oxford chain also ventured into online services to attract the buyers who preferred e-commerce. At Crossword Bookstores in Bandra, Mumbai, the store sells stationery supplies and some accessories with books to attract people to books.

All in all, the road ahead for the survival of bookstores is to adapt to the changing times evoked by the abrupt evolution of online market and the sudden pandemic-infused lockdown.

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