Monday, April 23, 2012

The page flips over

You are still living in the dinosaur age!” My friend exclaimed when I expressed curiosity at his buying books from Flipkart. Oops! I should have said ordered books from Flipkart because isn’t “buying” a physical act? Well, that’s so “romanticising” the past, I was told.
Has the act of buying books from the bookstores — sniffing in the “bookish” air, sometimes standing on the toes and sometimes bending at the knees to hunt for books and finally grinning when you get the copy you were looking for — become so passe? Are the technology-driven businesses and corporate-owned bookstores appealing more to the sensibilities of generation now than those cosy book nooks around the corner? We spoke to readers and bookstore owners to find out...

Leafing through change
Says Sunil Gadgil, owner of Popular Bookstores, Deccan Gymkhana, “We are disadvantaged by the current competitive scenario. We can’t afford to sell the books at significant discounts like the online bookstores. Of course, now they too have revised their rates because they have felt the pinch.”
Adds Upendra Dixit, owner of International Book Depot, one of the oldest bookstores in Pune, “The online stores can afford to sell books at lower rates because they sell several other things besides books, which means that their revenue doesn’t come only from books.”
The threat is real. But, what is it about Flipkart and others that they are touted as the next shopping address?
Why online shopping clicks...
Online shopping for books is a great experience. The range is amazing and pricing is the WOW factor. Regular bookstores can’t give me this joy because of their limited physical space and price range,” says Abhijit Kadle, a techie.
Mugdha Yeolekar-Alurkar, who resides in the USA, explains, “I have ordered books from Amazon several times. The advantages are twofold: one, you get the used books at a cheaper price; two, you can get them at your doorstep without having to look for them in different places. In most cases, you know the exact date when you would receive the books.”
Author Chandrahas Choudhury, who too uses Flipkart, says, “I would love to buy from bookshops with real addresses, but often they don’t have the entire range of Indian publishers. They stock almost no books by OUP, Permanent Black, Sage and Orient Longman and also don’t offer any value-addition. There’s no real knowledge of books to go alongside selling them, and so the experience is not a rich one.”
Infrastructure, or lack of it, is another reason,” says Dixit, adding, “Isn’t ordering books online a hassle-free option as compared to driving into the city, finding a parking place closest to the bookstore and on not finding it, parking at some distance and then hot-footing to the store...who has the time and patience for all this?”
Re-kindling the love of reading?
While Flipkart might be forgiven for promoting the printed word, Kindle is looked at as a new age villain by some and as a hero by others.
Kadle, who uses Kindle regularly, says, “There are several things about e-books that conventional books do not allow for, like full text searches, cross index searches, annotation and active bibliographies. If you can afford to buy a device like Kindle, then you can spend about $10 on a book. There are thousands of free books on Amazon because as copyrights expire on books, digital versions are made available free. You can read almost all the classics without spending a penny. ”
Gadgil, who also owns a Kindle, says, “Kindle is a good travel companion. However, my eyes were strained by the effort.”Satyajit Salgarkar, a teacher at a residential school, argues against it, saying, “The physical presence of the book, the font, the pages — they are important in summing up the reading experience.”
The clincher, in this case, is the price. Gadgil says, “At present e-books are the privilege of the few. But, once the prices are reduced, more and more people will turn to Kindle.”
What will he do in that case?
I will start stocking Kindles,” he says, matter-of-factly.
What the futurehas in store...
Does that sound the death-knell for the bookstores?
No”, says Subhadra Sen Gupta, Delhi-based writer. “You know, it’s a bit like cinema was declared dead when television came along. Books have been killed so many times, I’ve lost track. That is the computer industry talking. Also India is a huge market and ultimately there is space for everyone.”
Akshat Jaiman, a PHD student adds, “If you go to places like Darjeeling or Sikkim, the evenings are spent by sitting and reading inside book stores. And buying them! In fact, Darjeeling has only one book store called the Oxford Book Store and it is flooded with people. Book stores have a lot of scope for expanding into smaller towns.”
Yeolekar-Alurkar says, “The online shopping experience doesn’t give me personal satisfaction. Whenever I visited Paresh Agencies in Appa Balwant Chowk in Pune, the owner would willingly offer information about the other book titles written by the author, whose work I was searching for. I also remember once a salesman from Anmol Prakashan walked to another shop to find a book for me. I find this kind of personal attention and willingness to help readers very encouraging.”
Dixit, seconds her opinion, saying, “A book store is judged by the collection it has. Serious readers, who have finer taste, will always come to the place which has good books. They are not really interested in browsing the books while sipping coffee, or listening to the music. That’s where places like Manney’s, International Book Depot and Popular come in. As book sellers, we should be able to help readers who need guidance, mentoring and also suggest reference books. This isn’t true of online services or the mall-enclosed book stores.”
Catching up is the word
Gadgil, who has already started a FB page, will now be launching his website. His store will also be starting a courier service that will deliver books across the country. Reflecting a pragmatic business side, Gadgil says, “It will take another decade and half for e-publishing to become the norm in India. And, to survive the onslaught we have to make changes accordingly.”
Dixit, on the other hands, admits to “playing on the last wicket.” “I am standing on the wicket and intend to play as long as possible without hitting sixes and fours. At my age (he’s 72), I cannot take on the Internet business or reinvent myself. ”
It’s win-win for readers
It certainly won’t be presumptuous to say that both the mediums will co-exist in the present times.
Says Sen Gupta, “Conventional ways will not die. It’s just that we will have more options of how we want to read. I have friends who carry a Kindle when they are travelling but still browse bookshops.”
Adds Jaiman, “Closing down of neighbourhood bookstores might be a passing phenomenon. I don’t think technology in the long run will take away the desire to read books in hard copy and storing it in one’s own library at home. I guess people will need time to become FREE from the intoxication called technology.

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