New Delhi: While the first few days of lockdown 3.0 was dominated by liquor stores, another category of merchandise that made their way to the list of essentials in phase three were books and stationery. Though less of a celebrity than liquor stores, book stores across the capital had been raring to reopen. Monday saw many such small and medium bookstores open in Delhi after nearly two months.
Amid images of customers flouting social distancing norms and thronging liquor stores, images appeared on social media of Delhiites standing peacefully outside bookshops, waiting their turn to make their purchase while maintaining social distancing.
"We are maintaining all social distancing measures such as working with limited staff, ensuring two meters of distance between staff and customers and not allowing more than two people inside the shop at one time," owner of Midland Books, Mirza Tauseef Baig, told News18.
But with social distancing becoming the new norm, small bookstores in Delhi may be in for a lurch, even if rules were relaxed. Baig said that though the store had its own dedicated customers, sales had been heavily impacted due to the lockdown.
"The bookstore business runs on passion, not profit," Baig, the son of Mirza Yaseen Baig who founded the store in 1978 said. "My father started the shop with just a single stand. Only our passion for books has kept us going," he said.
Today, Midland has four outlets spread across Delhi. But it does not consider itself as part of the new crowd of online stores. "We are not hooked up with e-commerce sites," Baig said, adding that a majority of Midland's customers were regulars who came to the store, not just to buy books but also to chat with the family and discuss recommendations while flipping through the pages of a book they may or may not purchase.
That, however, was before the coronavirus pandemic killed thousands across the world. Now, bookstores like Midland have to find a way to upgrade with times and home delivery now seems to be the only way forward.
Books were not considered as part of "essential goods" by the government of India, which imposed a national lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of COVID-19. While e-commerce websites like Amazon do deliver books, their services were also limited to delivering only essential services.
To fill the gap and bring readers to books without bringing them to bookshops, many bookstore owners, as well as publishers, have been tying up with third-party service providers to home deliver books.
Delhi-based publisher Roli Books recently announced home delivery of books that were ordered from them via their website, WhatsApp or social media portals. Starting Friday, Roli Books has been receiving hundreds of orders from Delhiites for books to be delivered.
For delivery, the publishers have engaged local partners like Dunzo, Swiggy and others who are basically acting as couriers. But Roli Books' initiative was not just meant to provide books to readers amid lockdown but also to small bookstores, many of whom may end up facing closure due to the lockdown.
"Every time someone purchases a book from us for home delivery, we ask them the name of the bookstore that they would normally buy from," Kapil Kapoor of Roli Books told News18. "When they tell us the name, we credit ten percent of the proceeds made from the sale to the bookstore," he added.
Incidentally, one of the customers who phoned in with an order was a Kashmiri based in Delhi. Though he lived here, the customer named a bookshop called "Gulshan Book" in Kashmir. Roli Books arranged to have 10 percent of the sale value credited to them.
Stores running dry
With bookstores running dry, publishers have also been facing a crisis. But Kapoor was optimistic.
"The pandemic will change the way people interact with the market. But that does not mean people will stop reading. Quite the contrary," Kapoor felt. With social distancing forcing people indoors, he said, more people were likely to turn to books for comfort and to pass time, the publisher said, adding that this was the time for optimism and innovation.
Asked what books were ordered the most since the announcement on Friday, Kapoor promptly said, "Cookbooks. I guess lockdown is forcing people to learn how to cook," he chuckled.
Publishers have previously complained about the lack of government investment in the book and publishing industry.
According to the Nielsen India Book Market Report 2015, the size of the Indian book market was the sixth-largest in the world at Rs 261 billion, was expected to the cross Rs 739 billion by 2020. But with the advent of e-books, e-commerce websites and now the pandemic, the sector needs instant reform and government attention for smaller sellers to survive.