Will the pandemic enable us to imagine our cities with more bookstores?

How many bookstores does Delhi have? Sadly, no one knows, and it is hard to even hazard a guess. In any case, it would again depend on definition. For example, do you include all the shops that sell school textbooks, or other specialised books such as law books? That number would run into hundreds, if not thousands. Do you include the pavement sellers who spread out their wares in major markets? Again, the number would be in the hundreds or thousands. Do you include shops that sell books by the weight, or those that sell thrillers at fixed prices? Hard to put a number to these.

Even if you have a narrower definition of bookstore, as a shop that sells a variety of books for the general reader and the scholar, or stores that specialise in a niche within this (for example, stores that sell exclusively or largely children’s books), and which source their books from the trade, we don’t really know how many bookstores the city has, but it is safe to hazard a guess that now the number is no longer in the thousands or hundreds, but in the tens.

We know something else as well. That bookstores are not spread evenly across the city. If you want to buy the latest bestseller in English, you’ll have to go to central or south Delhi, and if you had to buy a Hindi book, you’d have to go to the area around Darya Ganj, near the old city.

If you live in West Delhi, as I’ve done for nearly a quarter century, or if you live in east Delhi, across the river, you’re not in luck. You’ll have to trek across town to get to a half-decent bookstore. You’d be marginally luckier if you lived near the North Campus of Delhi University, where you’d find a few bookstores that stock at least the more popular authors. But again, if you were looking for, say, slightly less popular literary fiction, you’d have no choice but to go to, say, Khan Market.

Look at this differently: for a population as large as that of Bulgaria, there simply aren’t any bookstores worth the name.

The birth of our bookshop

Hardly surprising then, that when we at LeftWord Books decided to open a bookstore in Shadipur in West Delhi, people thought we were mad.

Most of all, the locals thought we were mad. Why would anyone want to open a bookstore in Shadipur, which is basically a working class/lower middle class neighbourhood? The neighbourhood has no boutiques, no fine dining restaurants, no art galleries, no fancy electronics stores, no upmarket grocery stores, no pets shops – in other words, none of the kinds of businesses that provide bookstores with their footfall.

Our neighbours are a wholesale tailoring shop, a (now shut) pharmacy, a milk booth, and a shop that sells rolls, biryani, and other fast food. None of them provides us with footfalls. But, as our neighbours discovered to their delight, our customers do provide them with business, particularly the fast food shop and milk booth. The local tea shop, a few hundred yards away, also does good business when we hold events.

Events, in fact, have been an important driver of sales for us. When we got this space in Shadipur, we didn’t do it alone. We tied up with three other organisations – the Jana Natya Manch, the theatre group of which I’ve been a part for over three decades; the All India Democratic Women’s Association; and the School Teachers’ Federation of India. We banded together and pooled our resources, so our bargaining power increased, and together we were able to purchase the entire four-storey building, with each organisation getting a floor. Jana Natya Manch set up Studio Safdar, an independent arts space, so anyone who came to Studio Safdar would enjoy the bookstore and vice-versa.

Studio Safdar is named after Safdar Hashmi, who, along with a worker-spectator, was killed when Jana Natya Manch was attacked while performing a street play on 1 January 1989. We inaugurated Studio Safdar on his birthday, 12 April, in 2012. With 1 May round the corner, we decided to launch the bookstore on that day and call it May Day Bookstore.

The ambition at the time was to create a left-wing cafe-cum-bookstore. While the cafe idea has remained more or less a pipe dream – we operate the cafe only on special occasions, including May Day every year – the bookstore is now an established part of Delhi’s intellectual landscape.

Building a different books space

What sets May Day Bookstore apart from any other “regular” bookstore is that we carry a highly curated list. We are biased in two, somewhat overlapping, directions: we stock books by independent publishers; and we stock left-wing authors and titles. We almost never stock the latest release or bestsellers from mainstream presses. We figure that if people want that, they can go to any bookstore in central or south Delhi. Or they can find them online.

If they are making the trek all the way to come to May Day Bookstore – and the “trek is more psychological than real, because we are excellently connected by public transport and much closer to centre of town than most fancier locations in south Delhi – then we’d better give them something that will woo them. And what better to woo book lovers than with stellar books you don’t generally get to see in bookstores?

This, to my mind, is the key to a great bookstore – that it provides us with the joy of discovery. Sometimes we find titles or authors we weren’t looking for or thinking of, and sometimes we find titles or authors that we didn’t even know existed. Any bookstore that gives you that experience again and again is a bookstore you’re likely to keep going back to.

Then something else happened, serendipitously, which aided this process. A friend called one day and said he was trying to unload his late father’s books. His father had been a professor and had a great collection of books in his chosen area – history and sociology – apart from general books. I asked my friend to donate them to a library – wouldn’t his father’s university be delighted?

Turns out, no. Most libraries are acutely short on space, and it’s no longer easy to donate books to them. My friend was not only willing to donate his father’s collection to us, but also urged me to start a used books space at May Day. I was sceptical. We had no financial bandwidth to buy used books, no matter how cheap, and I had no idea how to manage the used books business. (We didn’t even know how to manage the main bookstore, but we had plunged in regardless and were now learning the ropes.) My friend felt there would be many others who’d like to donate books. Pushing against my resistance, he sent out an email to a small group of his friends asking for donations of books for the store.

I was flabbergasted. That one email was forwarded multiple times by scores of people, and we were flooded with requests for pickups of books. Fortunately, we were approaching 1 May, and we turn that day into a bit of a festival anyway, where books, music, ideas, coffee, all come together. Over the years, May Day Bookstore has become a niche store that people seek out – as articles here, here, and here show.

Over time, the used books section has become a big draw, particularly for young people. What’s been even more heartening is that many youngsters, who would initially come to buy only used books because they are inexpensive, also started browsing, and then buying, new books. Over the years, scores of students also volunteered at the annual May Day gala, helping us sort, price, and arrange books, and dealing with the huge footfalls we get that day. Volunteers, in fact, have become the bookstore’s chief ambassadors, and for the past few years, we’ve had people applying for volunteering even before we made the public announcement.

We’ve also noticed something else. Everybody who comes to May Day Bookstore ends up buying something. We hardly ever have a person who visits us but doesn’t buy. Not only that – because May Day is located in a neighbourhood that most people don’t visit for anything else, almost all sales are for multiple books. Nobody makes the trek to only buy one book!

When the pandemic hit

Thus it was that last year, about seven years after being set up, the bookstore made a profit – a tiny one, admittedly – through the year. We finally had a little bit of money that we were going to spend on air-conditioning the space.

Then the pandemic hit. We shut the store when the All-India lockdown began, and only opened in a very limited way a full three months later, in late June, because by then we had started getting orders online and those had to be serviced. For three months or more, however, there was literally no earning. Even though we are now back in business, footfalls have been low – never before have we felt so elated if we get one customer in the entire week!

That is only to be expected, given that a large proportion of our regular customers are young people and students, dependent mainly on public transport. Then there’s also the genuine health concerns. There are two reasons we haven’t gone under. One, we don’t pay rent, since we own the space; and two, the online business on leftword.com has kept us going.

Our neighbour comrades also had it tough. The AIDWA office remained shut for over three months, even though they were engaged in providing relief to victims of the February communal violence in Delhi, as well as to workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic. The same was true for STFI. Their members now had to teach online, so their office has also remained shut for months.

Jana Natya Manch moved its activities online, but Studio Safdar, used by Delhi’s theatre groups for rehearsals and performances, has been shut for over five months. Shadipur itself has also suffered, since a large number of enterprises depend on the labour of migrant workers to stay alive.

What of the future?

What does the future hold? It is hard to say. But there’s a couple of points I’d like to make.

One, the printed book, which is really the first industrial artefact of mass communication, is not going away anywhere. In fact, while a number of other technologies have become archaic and redundant or niche, and in some cases even extinct – think of film of the analogue era, for both still and moving images, or analogue voice recording technologies like tapes, or the short-lived personal pager from the mid-1990s – the printed book has remained more or less unchanged through the centuries.

Printing technologies have changed radically, of course, but the final artefact they produce, the book itself, is basically the same object that existed half a millennium ago. In other words, the printed book is a highly resilient artefact of the industrial era that shows no sign of being edged out by the digital era.

Two, because agglomerating e-commerce sites work on the basis of big data and algorithms, it is hard to chance upon books and authors that you may be interested in, but that do not notch up big sales. This is particularly true of books and authors that go against the grain, that challenge the zeitgeist. As it is the online space is so full of noise and an information overload. All this means that there will be need for carefully curated niche bookstores, that cater to specific tastes.

In the long run, then, I’m not pessimistic about the fate of bookstores.

One last point. We need to re-imagine our cities. The pandemic and lockdown has forced millions to stay at home. Many companies and organisations are now finding that working from home works quite well for their businesses – not only do they save on huge rentals for office space, they also save on additional costs such as electricity and the internet.

Employees, of course, may or may not think so rosily of the work from home situation in the long run. Many of them struggle to get good internet services, or have to share bandwidth and hardware with others at home. Be that as it may; that’s a separate debate. For the moment, I want to make a limited point. If work from home becomes a significant part of urban life, then neighbourhoods need to be more diverse, and they need to provide for their communities’ diverse needs. And these needs, in any society that calls itself civilised, must include bookstores.

We really cannot have cities where populations the size of small nations are not serviced by bookstores. We need more bookstores in every city, and we need them distributed more democratically across each city. If the pandemic results in the setting up of more niche bookstores across our cities, it will have done some social good.

This article first appeared on Scroll.in on 12 September 2020 under the same title.