First published in the series Publishing And The Pandemic by Scroll in November 2020.
Never and nowhere in the world have independent book stores had it easy, but this year reality hit especially hard.
Across India, months of stringent pandemic-induced lockdowns led many of the country’s ‘indies’ to an existential crossroads; today, some have permanently shut down, others are fighting back in innovative ways, and a few, like the elegantly-curated Wayword & Wise, remain undecided about the future.
“Browsing for books and reading are such meditative practices.”
These are the words of Dr Justice DY Chandrachud of the Supreme Court of India, who, in the course of his prolific law career, has authored several notable judgments on Affirmative Action in the country. Despite his limited free time, Justice Chandrachud remains a dedicated bibliophile. He also counts the quaintly-named independent book store Wayword & Wise amongst his favourite haunts in South Mumbai.
During a telephonic interview on a quiet, breezy Sunday afternoon, the Justice narrates pleasant anecdotes from his past visits to the city’s much-loved book shop, most of them involving its cheerful former curator, Virat Chandok. When Chandok learnt the Justice had appreciated one of his previous recommendations – neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s famed memoir Do No Harm : Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery – he immediately handed him Marsh’s lesser-known but brilliant Admissions : A Life In Brain Surgery. The book is a moving personal commentary on the doctor’s case studies, which co-mingle with his own reflections and emotions. Justice Chandrachud says he will always be grateful to Chandok for introducing him to one of his most cherished reads of all time.
Wayword & Wise was born five years ago with a promise to deliver a creative and immersive experience for the city’s readers, book lovers and free thinkers. Its home is in the heart of Mumbai’s business and cultural district of Ballard Estate, Fort, a hub of Indo-Gothic heritage buildings, cafes and restaurants, museums and art galleries. At first, the store’s exterior appears indistinguishable from the plethora of commercial establishments that surround it, even though its royal blue banner, with Wayword & Wise stamped across in stylish font, gives it a certain flair. But the transformational moment for visitors occurs once they’ve swung open the main door and stepped into the store’s main display area.
This rectangular space – one that manages to feel cozy and spacious at the same time – is neatly stocked with close to 10,000 new, old and rare books. The atmosphere is calm but it crackles under the surface with a loving, literary reverence – for the joys of the written word, for the intense art form that browsing for well-curated books can be, for the tactile experience of a novel passing from shelf to hand, for the soft sound of pages flipping, and for passionate impromptu debate that might erupt over the narrative structure employed by a certain novelist or over the subtext of verse by an obscure poet. Wayword & Wise could be that melting pot of the infinite worlds and experiences that find their way onto the printed page; a fertile haven for those seeking a kind of literary moksha.
What has further cemented Wayword & Wise’s reputation as a serious book store is the fact that its focus is on books – lots of books and only books. This is all the more admirable given that plenty of indies have ‘gone mainstream’ in recent years, hoping to attract larger customer footfalls by cutting down book space and offering gadgets, stuffed toys and other knick-knacks in a bid to boost sales. Wayword & Wise, with its refusal to conform to such trends, has chosen instead to remain a sacred space for its customers.
Patrons of the store include prominent names – amongst them, filmmakers Mahesh Bhatt and Govind Nihalani, author Jerry Pinto and corporate stalwart PJ Naik – but what fuels Wayword & Wise is a fierce love for all things literary and a desire to promote books of quality amongst the general reading public. It is a worthy ideology, for as Justice Chandrachud remarks, “Dedicated bookstores are critical to the culture. Reading is essential for the evolution of society.”
AN INSPIRATION, A VISION
Wayword & Wise is the brainchild of ex-banker and businessman Atul Sud. Over the past decade, Sud – a lifelong reader, book enthusiast and world traveler – would make it a point to visit a local indie book shop every time he found himself in a new city. He was especially impressed when he chanced upon Parnassus, a book lover’s paradise in Nashville, Tennessee aptly named after the Greek mythological mountain that symbolizes literature and learning. Parnassus was co-founded in 2011 by Ann Patchett, the famed author of Bel Canto, who has described her store as a personal tribute to Nashville, “a gift to the city I love.”
In time, Sud became convinced that he wanted to create a similar labour of love back home in Mumbai. Fortuitously he owned a building called Strategic House on Fort’s Mint Road – just the right property for a book store. With indies everywhere struggling under the burden of sky-high rents, Sud knew he was lucky to have prime real estate on hand to fuel his dream. “I could have used my property for a business far more lucrative than an indie bookstore,” he says candidly. “But I didn’t care. Books are what I love, this is what I wanted to do. I was in this for passion, not profit.”
Sud credits The Book Shop – New Delhi’s sophisticated indie landmark – as his main inspiration. Its owner, the late KD Singh, and Singh’s daughter Rachna, became trusted mentors to Sud in the early, heady days of Wayword & Wise’s conception. They guided him through the complicated business of books and advised him on critical aspects such as store decor, lighting, aisle arrangement, even such specific details as the exact height and width that its wooden shelves needed to be. Sud also found a talented collaborator in Virat Chandok, a skilled curator and literateur who had previously worked at Mumbai’s iconic Strand Book Stall and the suburban Lotus House Books.
Wayword & Wise opened its doors in late 2015, treating its curious visitors to not only an impeccable selection of English language books, but also to an eclectic range of established as well as emerging genres. On offer are literary novels and novellas, crime and spy fiction, philosophy and memoir, and tomes on food, travel, photography and poetry. There is a specially-curated shelf for feminist and queer literature from around the globe, and another that showcases graphic art, erotica and adult comic books.
Keshava Guha, author and editor at Juggernaut Books, has praise for the store’s inexhaustible selection of world literature. “Traditionally, Indian English-language publishers and bookstores have mostly imported their product from the UK. But Wayword & Wise tapped into the vibrant US literary scene, bringing the works of lesser-known American authors to Indian readers,” says Guha, who while browsing at the store, discovered Lucia Berlin, an Alaskan-born short story writer with a devoted but miniscule following outside North America. It’s no wonder then that Guha considers Wayword & Wise a notch above other indies, a “niche indie” as he rightly calls it, where the value of its books simply cannot be measured in sales.
The fact that Wayword & Wise has extended itself well beyond the world of Anglo Saxon literature is proved by its repertoire of translated works. These include the poetry of Polish-born Czeslaw Milosz, the complete works of Italy’s Primo Levi, and myriad titles by Gallic, Belgian, German, Arab and East Asian writers. Jostling for shelf space are gems like Hiromi Kawakami’s emotionally searing Record Of A Night Too Brief, Austrian satire via Thomas Bernhard’s Goethe Dies and political fiction by Abbas Khyder, a former prisoner of war in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq.
in keeping with the indie belief that emerging writers must be platformed, Wayword & Wise has steadfastly subscribed to a host of small international presses. These include Seagull, Pushkin and Europa Editions, all of which began to grow in status once their authors became known. Europa is an indie imprint which was set up in 2005 to publish the Italian-language novels of then-unknown Elena Ferrante. Over the next decade, Europa went on to publish the English translations of Ferrante’s trailblazing Neapolitan Novels, a quartet that has today sold over 10 million copies worldwide and seen translation into 45 languages. Europa Editions continues to champion debut novels and new authors, and many of the imprint’s titles have found shelf space at Wayword & Wise.
Yet indies continue to face challenges the world over. Overhead costs are high and sales margins tend to be slim. Even during its pre-pandemic heyday, Wayword & Wise saw a footfall of only about ten to fifteen customers a day, a low figure even by modest standards. Community support has been hard to build. It has become even tougher to maintain given the fierce onslaught of competition in recent years – first from mainstream chain bookstores, now from e-commerce titan Amazon.com. And with the growing popularity of Netflix and other digital entertainment media, the number of urban Indians who once read for pleasure appears to be declining.
All this has left small, passion-project bookstores like Wayword & Wise especially vulnerable. There is scant government support for independent book retailers who must get a string of licences to operate and value-add to their businesses. Wayword & Wise’s plans to open a wine and cheese counter on the premises fell through a couple of years ago when a liquor licence was denied to the management. To add to this woe, are the high taxes levied on audio books and CDs that are sold at physical stores. Moreover, indies like the neighbouring Kitab Khana are able to attract more readers, by offering heavy discounts on their books and promoting bestsellers or big-ticket prize winners over all others.
Wayword & Wise has often had customers who expect discounts and other freebies; sometimes a sneaky browser will photograph a book or two at the store, in the hope of being able to buy it online at a cheaper price. “We’ve stuck to our guns,” smiles Sud. “We’re not a discount store.” This purist stand has sometimes paid off in pleasurable ways, he adds, through those rare customers who walk in looking for the “really good stuff.” There will always be someone who is interested in, say, historical fiction, like Alan Furst’s masterful series of spy novels that are set against the backdrop of the Second World War. And there is the odd music aficionado as well, like a customer who once dropped by the store and gleefully spent $100 (or Rs.7,000) on Bob Dylan’s beautifully comprehensive collection of The Lyrics : Since 1962.
And so, as the year 2020 began and a new decade with it, Wayword & Wise continued with business as usual, secure in the knowledge that what they were offering were not just books their customers would want, but books that readers might never have known they wanted – at least not until they found them, sitting on a shelf, and pulled them out.
AND THEN THE PANDEMIC HIT.
When much of the world went into strict lockdown last March, Wayword & Wise had no choice but to down its shutters – just as bookstores everywhere were doing. The lockdown’s first phase, which lasted upto the end of May, was its harshest. During this time, global book sales were down almost 70 per cent from the previous year. According to Keshava Guha, the reason for this was the complete non-availability of packers, shippers and delivery agents, an eco system vital to the book industry and to both its physical and online traffic.
When book stores were allowed to open in late May, customer footfall had drastically reduced. This was expected, given that months of economic uncertainty lay ahead and that the risk to health remained high. There were also added costs for book stores who had to regularly sanitize their physical spaces, and rearrange them to enable social distancing for the few customers that might come by.
But the real threat for book stores, and indies in particular, was the news that Amazon had been permitted to resume its delivery operations. The online shopping behemoth, with its Indian arm valued at approximately $16 billion, has steadily increased its share of the global book market and now accounts for almost three quarters of all online book sales. Amazon Publishing, along with its fast-growing digital library (Prime Reading) and curated book lists (Good Reads) had always posed stiff competition to small and mid-sized book shops. But now, these stores feared near-annihilation.
Could they rise to the challenge and meet it?
THE KEY : FIGHTING BACK THROUGH DIGITAL INNOVATION.
With no end for the pandemic in sight, book stores the world over have put their energies into experimental innovations. For Indian indies in particular, this has meant ‘going digital’ with a vengeance : creating virtual libraries of their books, re-training staff in online operations, and preparing for the fact that physical sales and income from in-person book events and festivals will be on hold for the foreseeable future.
Interacting with customers online is the antithesis of indie culture, and keeping their community of readers and customers intact has become priority for independent book stores. Mumbai’s Trilogy, a growing indie that’s been likened to Wayword & Wise in recent times and was named Bookstore of the Year in 2019, remains closed for browsing but it has overhauled its website. Today it offers customers free memberships to its virtual library and arranges book pickups and deliveries six days a week through tie-ups with local agents like Swiggy and Dunzo. Bangalore’s Champaca has created a robust social media presence, advertising new arrivals via Facebook, Instagram and group WhatsApp posts. Launched just a few months before the pandemic outbreak, Champaca is known for its focus on female authors and promotes writing on feminism, sexuality, gender identity and race. During the lockdown, Champaca built on its core identity by starting a virtual monthly book club and hosting an online author event via Zoom with US novelist and essayist Roxane Gay. Other indies, like Bahrisons in the National Capital Region, have gifted its readers book vouchers through a tie-up with the popular online advertising site Little Black Book. Guwahati’s The Bibliophile Café and Kerala’s DC Books offer a free e-book for every print purchase while Poetrywala, a small imprint that publishes and promotes new poets, has plans of crowd funding. Yet even as print sales through online orders and activities have tripled since the early days of lockdown, overall numbers are considerably lower than they were in the pre-pandemic era.
In the midst of all this action, Wayword & Wise has stayed eerily quiet on the digital front. When it reopened on August 1 after four months of closure, it was with the disappointing news that its much-loved curator Virat Chandok had left the store. Presently, the management has opted to sell existing stock only, and store timings have been reduced. Owner Atul Sud is noncommittal about the store’s future, and has adopted a ‘wait and watch’ approach. He admits to having no plans of launching digital operations for the store; Wayword & Wise’s once-active Facebook page, which last posted a prompt for Homie : Poems by Danez Smith on March 19, has remained inactive since that date.
THE FUTURE : WHERE TO FROM HERE?
With international as well as Indian indies gearing up for a digital future, much will depend on the local reading culture that surrounds independent book stores and how successfully these enterprises are able to nurture community loyalty and support. While some Indian indie entrepreneurs remain optimistic in the face of corporate competition online, others are skeptical of the current environment.
A growing belief amongst independent book shop owners is that their struggle isn’t entirely rooted in the current pandemic, the prevailing economic recession or in the ongoing digital revolution. There are deeper, systemic problems that are interconnected – one, the low value that reading, literature and the humanities hold in the Indian educational system, and the other, the lack of government support and protection for the book trade in general.
Out of India’s roughly $18 billion English language publishing market, 80 per cent sales are attributed to academic material and text books. Reading for pleasure, and the habit of reading anything outside the prescribed academic curriculum is simply not inculcated enough amongst the youth, perhaps because these activities appear to have no material value in a competitive, career-driven world.
This might explain why the genre of Self Help has become so profitable for India’s English-language publishing industry. Motivational Self Help, with its glossy veneer of quick-fix spirituality, is typically aimed at two subsets of readers. The first subset appears to be looking for feel-good, temporary solutions to complicated human dilemmas, a worrying trend in a society where mental health disorders, depression and anxiety are rarely discussed openly, and where professionally-trained therapists are few in number. The second subset are those who are looking for what Keshava Guha calls the “transactional value” of a book – people who tend to invest in a book with a ‘What’s in it for me?’ mentality and who aren’t drawn to reading for the pleasure of well-crafted storytelling.
Guha further elaborates on the crucial role that government protection can play, especially at vulnerable times of pandemic-driven fear and economic uncertainty. In Europe, for instance, physical book stores have been recognized as vital spaces that serve the public’s intellectual and emotional health; at present, the governments of France and Germany have actively supported independent book stores by banning Amazon from offering online discounts in their countries.
Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for the US and India.
The Strand is New York City’s most fashionable independent book store – it holds a library of 2.5 million books, many of them rare, and hosts in-person literary events and salons through the year. The pandemic has choked The Strand. For the first time in its 93-year-old history, the store has had to cut staff and cancel its calendar of in-store events; it has managed to stay afloat primarily due to online community support, donations and crowd funding initiatives.
In a bid to protect US bookstores from extinction, Literary Hub’s Andy Hunter launched the bookshop.org initiative in January this year. Since then, almost 900 independent bookstores in the country have signed up on the site, each receiving 30 per cent of every sale they help make. By last April, bookshop.org had averaged $150,000 in daily sales and it continues to grow at a fast rate.
Closer to home, a clutch of indie book stores (including Mumbai’s Trilogy, Goa’s Literati and Kolkata’s Storyteller) have formed a collective called the Independent Bookstore Association of India. Their only criteria for registration is ownership of a physical book store and no corporate backing. According to the Association’s current website, the aim is for indies to share resources and “to bridge the gap between indie bookstores, the publishing industry, readers and central as well as state governments.”
It’s too soon to tell how this enterprise will fare in the future. But with online book sales at 50 percent of total sales, and 70 per cent of all sales – both retail and online – generated through creating awareness via social media, digital operations are no longer a mere supplement to a physical bookstore, but an essential component of it.
As Parnassus’ Ann Patchett said to The Guardian in an interview earlier this year : “We make our plans. We change our plans. We make other plans. This is the New World Order.”
I wonder what the New World Order might mean for Wayword & Wise.
Digital technology offers viable paths for bold, original and multiple voices in writing, and wider audiences are evolving for books that are diverse in content and format. And yet, there is a certain comfort to be found within a physical book shop, within the gentle act of perusing book covers and flipping through a page or two before moving on to the next. I think of this while browsing at Wayword & Wise on an evening in November. The store is almost empty; outside, dusk has settled over the city. I’m about to leave when a slim blue book, hanging out from a top shelf, catches my eye and then falls right into my hands. It turns out to be an autofictional novel I’ve never heard of – Sex And Rage by Eve Babitz – a book that, as it happens, instantly connects to my inner wildchild like a kindred spirit.
In an uncertain, unpredictable and fast-changing world, books and the empathies shared through them are the tools by which we might find a deeper connection to ourselves. Perhaps that is why bookstores, like temples, protect and nurture those who enter them. It’s a good enough reason for these structures to prevail for as long as humanity does, and why certain traditions – like Wayword & Wise, with all its waywardness and wisdom – should not be forced to change when everything else does.