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Book Art – anon AT WALDEN POND

First published in the series Publishing And The Pandemic by Scroll in December 2020.

…“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”…

When the nineteenth century author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson offered Henry David Thoreau a plot of land called Walden Pond, little did he know he was helping to make literary history. Thoreau moved to this idyllic spot in Concord, Massachusetts where he spent two years living in a rustic cabin and writing amidst nature and solitude. The result was Walden, a transcendentalist novel that would become a classic upon its publication in 1854, and in which Thoreau reflected upon life in the woods, the passage of time and the place of books as “the treasured wealth of the world, the inheritance of generations.”

Half a world away and multiple generations later, Thoreau’s seminal work would become a deep influence on a young electrical engineering student in Chennai, India. A self-described recluse, V. Ram Prasad recalls haunting the city’s local libraries in the 1970s and early 1980s, sometimes reading a book a day. By the time he was twenty, he says, he’d read “most of the classics, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Ayn Rand, Ovid to Shakespeare.”

By the late 1980s, Ram Prasad had completed his post-graduate studies in the US and returned to India. Employed as a product design engineer in Chennai, he continued to read voraciously. By this time, Ram Prasad had also met and married his wife Shobha, a graduate of Columbia University who shared his passion for books. Together, they spent most evenings and “half their salaries” at Landmark, the only open-display multi-purpose bookstore in the city at the time. The thought of turning entrepreneurs with their own bookshop was only a seed in their minds at this point. But the idea began to flourish when the Prasads met and befriended fellow bibliophile and Landmark employee D. Sudarshan Reddy (who would later launch the Odyssey and Fountainhead book chains across southern India) and two other Landmark staffers R. Sriram and K. Anita (who would jointly found the successful Crosswords book brand in Mumbai). The group decided to collaborate towards the birth of Walden, conceived by the Prasads as “a book lover’s paradise, a serene, magical lake of knowledge just as Walden Pond had been for Thoreau.”

As serendipity would have it, the Chennai-based Telegu film industry was shifting base to Hyderabad, the charming capital of Andhra Pradesh. Ram Prasad’s father, a prolific movie producer in the region, suggested Walden make its home in the city famed for the iconic Charminar.

Known for its history, architecture, cuisine, cinema and performing arts, Hyderabad had a rich but eroding literary culture. The time seemed ripe for a new and modern bookstore in the city. But there were apprehensions too. There were those who felt that Hyderabad’s circle of book lovers and readers was too small to justify such an investment. Others felt that AA Hussain & Co., a popular bookstore established in 1965 and operating out of the upscale Abids metro area, would prove to be too much competition. But the Prasads forged ahead with their dream. They already had financial backing from Ram Prasad’s partner and cousin G.K.B. Chowdhary, a successful businessman in the chemicals industry. Next, they chose the location of Greenlands Road in Begumpet – a spacious, uncongested suburb close to the city’s airport – for the first Walden Bookstore. From the moment it opened its doors on July 28, 1990, Walden – or Walden’s, as it quickly came to be known – was a hit with the public.

Walden attracted long-term residents, curious tourists, and celebrities in transit – amongst them, film actors Sonali Bendre, Raveena Tandon and Ramya Krishnan, city historian Narendra Luther as also reputed gastroenterologist Dr Nageshwar Reddy. Unlike other bookstores then, Walden was a multi-purpose, one-stop shopping hub, a unique entity in this pre-mall era. Families soon made Walden a weekend destination; its key features being a robust, child-friendly atmosphere, diverse product range and entertainment value. While much of the store’s 7,000 square foot space sold books and magazines, almost a third of the store’s sales came from audio cassettes, stationery, toys and gifts. There was a special popcorn-making machine on one side which sold up to 1,000 buckets a day, a soft drink dispenser, a T-shirt printing counter where children could choose their own designs, a florist right next to a free delivery service for greeting cards bought at the store, and, as the new millennium arrived, innovations such as installation video cubicles and free Internet service for customers. What was on offer was a complex and visionary model of services, and Ram Prasad describes those years as Walden’s peak period with almost no competition for miles around. Summer holidays transformed the bookstore into a near Disneyland crammed with reading events and art showings; Christmas welcomed special Santa Claus programmes, free gifts and family-oriented book-signing events by authors such as Tarla Dalal, Robin Sharma and Ruskin Bond.

“Walden sustained its unique place in the hearts of the city’s readers and consumers all through the 1990s and early 2000s,” recalls Ram Prasad. It thrived on community spirit, offering an intangible value that has since disappeared with the advent of big chain bookstores and corporate-owned e-commerce platforms. And while Walden stayed intimate in atmosphere (regular customers and staff were on a first name basis with each other), it never sacrificed its broad, mainstream appeal. At Walden, there was always something for anyone and everyone who walked in. On any given day, one could spot college students browsing for classical texts, executives looking for a copy of The New Yorker, couples asking for the latest fiction or non-fiction bestseller, and pre-teens anxious for the next adventure of Harry Potter. Ram Prasad remembers with a laugh how the release of a much-awaited book meant long lines and traffic jams around Walden, a situation that sometimes required extra store security. Walden was also one of the first bookstores in the country to offer Privilege Cards, with attractive discounts and gift vouchers on books and all its other items. And for several years in a row, the Walden brand was named Best Dealer by UNICEF for the latter’s range of cards and personal diaries.

Asiya Shervani, an Organizational/Workplace Advisor who moved to Hyderabad from New Delhi over a decade ago, credits Walden as one of the first places that oriented her in her new environment. It was at Walden that Shervani bought her first map of the city, where her old, trusted Schaeffer pen had its specialty nib replaced without a hitch, and where her then-young daughter could scout for art supplies. Shervani remembers trips to Walden as “memorable experiences.” Its cheerful layout and light background pop music (sometimes Abba, sometimes Boney M) would take her on a nostalgic trip back to her own childhood.

Business at Walden continued to boom as the new millennium progressed. While the Begumpet store remained its flagship outlet, Walden opened two more branches in the city – one in fashionable Banjara Hills on May 4, 2006, the other in Gachibowli on August 26, 2015. Combined, the three stores employed a staff of more than sixty, and enjoyed a customer footfall that was consistently high, sometimes touching 1,500 on weekends and holidays.

Remarkably, Ram and Shobha Prasad continued to run Walden with the same – if not more – passion they had started out with. Well-liked amongst their wide clientele of customers-turned-friends and acquaintances-turned-book lovers, the Prasads continued to serve eclectic reading tastes, expanding their stock to include coffee table books, poetry and philosophy, rarer topics such as occult studies and mysticism, and specialized titles from the film and theatre worlds. Walden also showcased many translated works of Telegu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam language authors.

With a natural zest for curation and community-building, the Prasads compiled monthly book lists, often sending out free copies of books they themselves had read and loved. Ikigai – writings of Japanese philosophy that recently made it to the LA Times bestseller list – was one such title. Ram Prasad also had a knack for sensing whether a new novel might become a cult hit; he enthusiastically promoted Vikas Swarup’s Q & A long before the book became the super hit Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire. And by the time Clint Eastwood’s celluloid romance, The Bridges of Madison County, became popular in India, Prasad had already read and circulated the little-known novella it was based on, Love In Black And White.

One of Walden’s crowning moments of pride came when the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Corporation recognized it as a must-see attraction of Hyderabad, launching a special daily bus service for groups of out-of-towners to visit the store. This put Walden Books on the list of a handful of charming global bookstores that have become international tourist hotspots – amongst them, Shakespeare And Company in Paris, Atlantis Books in Santorini and the Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice.

…“live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth”…

Sadly, Thoreau’s famous quote would come to have deeper meaning for the Prasads in recent years. By the end of 2015, after unprecedented and steady success for over a quarter of a century, Walden suddenly found itself facing a precarious future. By now, AA Hussain & Co. had shut down after fifty years of operation as one of Hyderabad’s prime bookstores. Other independent bookstores, which included Walden and many more across the country, were slowly suffocating from multiple developments. These included chain bookstores conveniently located within major shopping malls and a burgeoning e-books market. But what hurt the most were the heavily discounted online sales via digital platforms such as, a corporation that today controls the lion’s share of the global online book market. “Online sales have crushed physical ‘brick and mortar’ bookshops the world over,” Ram Prasad says. “These giants with deep pockets, Amazon and Flipkart, started selling books at a discount which was roughly our cost price. Rent was rising fast. Sales could not cover our expenses. Not just books, but many of our products like greeting cards and telephone diaries, for example, had stopped selling. With email and social media, who will buy these products today anyway?”

At Walden Begumpet, customer footfall had been in some decline since 2008. This process started after the city’s airport – which attracted many extra customers on their way in and out of Hyderabad – moved that year to Shamshabad. Then came other woes. A flyover construction created traffic jams in the area and obstructed access to the store. Roads that were being dug up and widened at this time ate into Walden’s parking space for customers. The Greenlands Road Walden, once a stimulating recreation zone for the city’s residents, was fast being drained of its attraction. Ram Prasad adds, “We reached a point when we had to put in our own money to run our flagship store. It was a white elephant; it was just no longer viable.”

In August 2019, Walden’s once-prized Begumpet outlet shut shop. For the Prasads, this was a pragmatic decision. Free of the liability of what Ram Prasad calls their “sinking Titanic”, the couple decided to focus on their two smaller branches which cost far less to run. They looked towards the approaching decade with optimism, believing that the stores in Banjara Hills and Gachibowli were easier for customers to access, and that they were well-stocked with popular self help titles, children’s books and a range of new products.

But then, the pandemic hit.

Suffocating months of lockdown over the ‘lost year’ of 2020 left the global economy dangerously shaken and ‘non-essential’ services suspended. Independent book stores were amongst the first casualties. Last spring, when lockdown was at its peak, some shuttered down permanently; others have since struggled on life support, fire-fighting the lack of physical presence of customers and the overwhelming shift to online retail. Despite digital initiatives such as social media advertising and online author events, home/kerb delivery services and appeals for crowd funding, independent bookstores in India and the world over will take time to revive.

For Walden Books, the pandemic proved to be the final straw in what had been a series of downturns in recent years. When the Banjara Hills and Gachibowli stores reopened on May 21, 2020, after more than two months of closure, there was an atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty all over the country. With rising inflation, the added costs of sanitizing and hygiene protocols, and customers who now preferred the safety and convenience of ordering books online to visiting physical bookstores, Walden’s two remaining outlets found themselves spluttering in a choke-hold, unable to find their trademark momentum. Over the summer, they each saw a steep 75 per cent drop in customer footfall, and combined total sales stood at a mere quarter of what they had been the previous year.

By late 2020, the writing on the wall was clear. Walden, known for its people-friendly ambience, crowd-pulling store events, product displays and aisles for browsing, could not hope to recover costs – far less make a profit – merely by switching to digital operations. The Prasads also accepted that amongst their core clientele of urban professionals and families with children, severe lockdowns and pandemic-induced insecurity had clearly impacted reading, entertainment and spending habits.

On October 31, 2020, after months of sentimental indecision, Walden firmly pulled the plug on their Banjara Hills and Gachibowli stores. For book lovers and shoppers who had come of age with the Walden brand over its thirty years of life, there was dismay and a deep sense of loss over the end of an era.

Some of Walden’s customers are more practical. Asiya Shervani, who once bought a city guide to Hyderabad from the store, now prefers using Google Maps on her phone. And while she sometimes romanticizes the past, she is thrilled by the diverse range of physical books, e-books and audio podcasts that the digital literary world has to offer. Shervani references Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock to nail what the pandemic has already shown : that homes will become the dominant institutions, and that innovation in the ways that books are distributed, marketed and accessed is the only way forward.

Ram Prasad agrees with this view. He says, “Books and reading are essential to life and they will continue to exist in one form or another. But for physical book stores to stay viable, our government, educational system, and publishing community must show more support.”

…“if you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts”…

“Our customers blessed our lives with so much goodwill and affection,” say the Prasads, who are now semi-retired. In a classy gesture of gratitude for Walden’s three decade run, the couple freely circulated a pocket-sized compilation of some of their most-loved book titles and anecdotes, films and songs, jokes and poems. Walden’s Black Book also includes bittersweet reflections (“the only way to grow is to let go”) and in keeping with the store’s cheery humour and community spirit, offers lists called “healthy habits” and “tips for brisk walking” – making for a fitting parting gift to a customer base that embraced Walden and turned it a proud landmark of Hyderabad.

The city’s most famous cultural touchstone, the Charminar, was built at the end of the sixteenth century to commemorate the end of a plague. As the sun sets on this year of an unforeseen global pandemic, beyond the legendary mosque’s gleaming minarets and over Walden’s shuttered doors, Ram Prasad’s favourite quote by poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning perhaps best expresses his resolve for the future and its next chapter :

“Light Tomorrow : With Today.”

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