In the basement of a commercial complex in Baroda, lies a bookshop owned by Rakesh Agrawal. One might not notice it at first glance, but by paying a little more attention, one can see that there’s a board outside the complex which claims that the store sells the cheapest books in the entire city.
Walk inside the store and you will be able to smell crisp, fresh paperbacks. On the windows are placed almost every self-help book that has made it to the market. “We showcase self-help books on our shelves because they are the books that sell the most,’’ said Rudraksha, Agrawal’s son, who is currently studying.
He helps part time at the store. But, bestsellers aren’t all that you can find at the store.
Browsing through some more shelves, it wouldn’t be difficult to come across many classics—old, worn copies with little notes inside them full of warmth. The sight of a thrifted book is enough to offer to the reader nostalgia for a time they haven’t even experienced.
Apart from the usual classics, there are many fictional books as well: mostly bestsellers. But, if you are lucky, you can find some unconventional reads hidden here and there as well.
Rudrakasha added that there are hardly any fiction readers who visit the store, which is why it becomes important for them, as booksellers, to keep up with what’s selling the best.
Self-help books have their own audience: claiming to offer to the youth some sort of a “direction” in life. As much as these books remain detached from social and political realities, most of them become bestsellers; and are often quite cheap as compared to other genres.
With the entry of platforms like Amazon and Flipkart, it has become increasingly difficult for independent booksellers to keep their small businesses running. The situation has turned worse during the pandemic, with people resorting to online shopping more and more.
One reason that a lot of people, including myself in the past, use these platforms to shop for books is because they offer books at a cheaper rate than bookstores. The cost of this, of course, had to be paid by people at the end of the chain i.e., the sellers and publishers who sold their books on the websites.
Independent booksellers don’t sell books at a higher price, they sell it at their right price. But, how does one cope up with exploitative corporations that sell the same books at a cost that is a little lower than its actual price?
For the small, independent bookstores, here is when bestsellers and thrifted books come to the rescue. Selling such books offer them a way to sustain themselves, as they are a lot cheaper than other books, attracting more people into the store.
Another bookseller I spoke to, Pradeep Kumar, is a 40-year-old man with a strong love for books. Kumar sells them at a stall near the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda. With the pandemic, however, he is now seen a lot less than before.
With many fond memories of visiting him, one of them remains of him recommending some books to me. He has a habit of leaving the books at the same place every night—just loosely wrapped in a plastic cover. When asked if he considers it safe, he replied, “Nobody steals books, so it is fine.”
People not stealing books must sound like a good thing for a seller, but come to think of it, it really isn’t… For it implies that nobody “bothers” to steal books anymore.
With every visit, he would fondly talk about his collection of books and sell them at really low prices. He would even lend it to anyone with a small deposit, making it a friendly, informal library for anyone to explore the joy of reading.
Having endured a flood where his entire collection had drowned, he built his little library-cum-store all over again, with the help of all the people in the city whose hearts he’d touched.
One can only imagine what effect the pandemic would have had on a stall like his. While it is more convenient to sit at home and order books with a few clicks, nothing can replace visiting a fellow book lover who would offer you not just books, but also a mindful conversation.
Small booksellers like these cater to every person who visits them individually. They make sure to not just be in a hurry to sell, but also to form genuine connections in the process.
Every bookseller I’ve visited has always asked me about the books I need and has carefully noted down the names if they’re not available in store, be it whatever genre. They let me know that they would check with their sources for the book I wanted. They always ask me to visit again soon.
This warmth offered by them is what leads a person to their store: to look at books with a friend or even alone, exploring books and aspects of our own being that we find in literature.
However, local booksellers would not be able to sustain themselves just by waiting for people to arrive. They are now using different ways to further their reach. They are offering home deliveries, making broadcast groups on WhatsApp, asking for feedback etc.
However, it is still very difficult for them to compete with big platforms like Amazon and Flipkart. Booksellers on the streets are slowly disappearing, with every order that is placed on these sites. That is how much the sale of a single book matters to these small businesses.
Now, it remains our collective responsibility to go beyond individual convenience and try to benefit those who are here, for the greater good and not the progress of a chosen few.
After all, opening a brown package with nothing inside except a book packed hastily is nothing compared to the joy of exchanging smiles, titles, locally made bookmarks and most importantly, a dialogue with fellow humans (and not robots on the Internet).