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Why bookstores will never die…#BrunchBookChallenge

I’ll tell you this: many of my friends don’t read. Even though we’re the most woke generation!

The Internet has surrogated our lives with artificial realities. Once browsing through a bookstore for leisure seemed like fun, now you can order online. Despite this, our attention spans are limited to 140-character tweets, conversations are reduced to abbreviations and stories…well, that’s literally an icon on your Snapchat. Perhaps that’s the reason why not too long ago Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto was urging people to return to reading by posting a ‘shelfie’ instead of a ‘selfie’ on her Instagram.

All our cover stars share this undying passion for books with Ms Bhutto. These extraordinary individuals have tirelessly cultivated spaces that aim to elevate the literary experience in an age where books aren’t just competing with e-books but also documentaries, podcasts, audio books, Netflix. So how is it that a simple 2-D book can still manage to go beyond the multi-dimensional world of the Internet?

I asked these questions to six bookstore owners at the library in Bikaner House, a quaint corner in the otherwise magnificent and culturally abuzz building.

When Ajay and Sanjay Mago’s father, Om Prakash, started his bookstore 60 years ago, it was a traditional one. There was no place to sit or have a cup of tea. Yet people spent an entire weekend there to talk to the owner about upcoming titles. And even though things have changed a lot with aggressive marketing and funding of e-commerce sites, books and bookstores are still thriving.

“Discounted books by e-commerce sites are monopolising the market. This might result in bookstores shutting. However, even though ordering books online is convenient, the whole experience of buying books is not just about getting the book and reading. You tell the salesmen what you need. You can Google it, but the personal touch is missing. Book readings, launches and interactive events can’t happen online. I’d like to meet my author,” says Ajay.

This is why he gives his kids weekly pocket money to buy a book from any bookstore. “And every weekend, we discuss the book. Besides, millennials have more choices these days. There are so many options. They have audio books and e-books. My kids have gone through all of them but they’ve come back to the physical bookstore. Kids aged 10 to 15 are not on Kindle at all,” he says.

A book is a treasure that increases with sharing

Anuj Bahri and Rajni Malhotra, Bahrisons Booksellers

Even though Rajni Malhotra feels that there’s an imbalance between commerce and culture when it comes to books, she can give you many reasons to buy one: “First of all, the book is in your hands – you can smell, touch and hold it any time you want. Secondly, the pages can be underlined or marked if you find something interesting and want to come back to it. You can keep it on your shelf and come back to the same book. And, lastly, you can share the book with a friend or a loved one or gift it,” she adds. Bahrisons has upheld these sentiments since 1953. “You might bump into a reader in the store who has read the book and an impromptu discussion makes the whole experience rewarding!” she adds.

And what about the impact of paper books on the environment? She says: “Books are now printed on recycled paper and are environment friendly.” This is why both Anuj and Rajni have never read on an iPad or Kindle. Rajni isn’t anti-technology. She says: “Social media is a strong influence in developing trends and curiosity. If people are online and see new titles, it creates awareness. Online reviews and blogs also increase book sales.”

A book is an object d’art

Priya and Kapil Kapoor, CMYK

Priya and Kapil Kapoor are the largest Indian distributors of art and design books in the country. “Since we first opened the doors of our Delhi store, nine years ago, there are events every week ranging from book binding, writing and photography workshops, to cooking classes, open mike and PechaKucha evenings, and lots of storytelling,” says Priya.

Many bookstore owners fear that books might fade into museum-worthy object d’arts, but the Kapoors believe that many of the books at CMYK are already like artworks. Kapil says: “You can’t replicate the experience online.”

Plus, Priya thinks that a comparison between books and e-books is futile. “You can’t compare the two. It’s like going to a restaurant or ordering in. There is no interaction with the chef, or someone to walk you through the menu, to help you discover a new dish that you may not have ordered sitting at home. The biggest differentiator is that at a bookstore you can discover new books and authors, it’s hard to do that on online platforms,” she reveals.

Started in British India almost 100 years ago, Priti Paul’s Oxford bookstore has nourished the minds of luminaries like Vikram Seth, Gita Mehta, Amitav Ghosh and Amit Chaudhuri. “Oxford has been a part of the social and intellectual fabric of Calcutta. I was interested in making this place a confluence of different things. There was a time when Amit Chaudhuri would sing in the store for his book release and we also started an alternative art gallery. I wanted to set up the bookstore as a cultural space. After that, I started a bookstore in Mumbai with Cha Bar although I wasn’t ready for that kind of humungous growth at the time,” says Paul.

But she realises that we’re now in the time of multi-channel reading driven by technology. Priti says, “Anything that gets people reading is fine. For me, reading is also about opening up your mind. Books can help you cope with this ever-changing, difficult world. That’s what I tell my children. When you read, you have so many different perspectives. ”

“Though I have to say,” she asserts after a pause, “I do feel technology can be an enabler, but it can also be a force for evil. Everyone once believed that it’s an equaliser. Tech companies have become big and powerful. If not monitored they can have a negative impact.”

Newsflash! Priti Paul has now opened a bookstore in Marrakesh, Morocco, called Kathakali. “It’s my boudoir of books,” she says. “I started this because I wanted my children to visit one!”

Have you joined the Brunch book challenge?

One of Twitter India’s most regularly trending hashtags, the #BrunchBookChallenge encourages readers to finish reading 50 books between Jan 1 and Dec 31, post them on social media, and become eligible for special prizes from HT Brunch.With more than four months to go in 2018, it’s still not too late to start!

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