Over the past two decades, bookselling everywhere in the world has changed tremendously. I would like to show how big these changes were for me by telling you the story of Harmony, my book shop at Assi Ghat in Varanasi.
In December 1996, I opened Harmony, with 200 books, overlooking the river Ganga, in one of the quietest parts of the city. From my chair I could see buffalo swimming in the river, and in the mornings small groups of pilgrims walked by my shop on their way to take a holy bath in the Ganga. Occasionally, a procession would pass taking a dead body to the cremation ghat. And often pilgrims would come into my book shop trying to buy flowers and incense.
In 1996, there was no bookshop along the river front, and I had thought, if a place is so quiet and beautiful, with the river passing by, book lovers will come to buy or visit the bookshop.
During that first year I did not know about things like the rising water level during the monsoon. The beautiful scene and the small river could change, and the river could become very big. I had no idea how high the water could go. The first time I watched the waters of the Ganga rising, my brain kept telling me that the water could come into my shop, but my heart said, no, because my shop was some steps up from the ghats. Slowly, though, I realized that I had to move all the books, which I did, with my friends and brothers, at the very last moment when the water touched the top step.
The second time the waters of the holy river decided to personally bless my shop, I was better prepared and asked a friend for help. She moved 50% of the books, carrying them on her back in a backpack. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
For the next two years, I had on average five customers a day. I had no telephone or backup electricity. During the frequent power cuts, candles lit up my small shop, and customers moved among the shelves holding a candle to look at the books.
All day long, I looked at publishers’ catalogues (I had to write a letter requesting them), choosing titles, writing the titles down on paper, and then sending handwritten orders to publishers by post. It took three weeks for the books to arrive. It was a long and tiring process. When I finally bought a computer with an Internet connection in 2001, my whole world changed. Today, I have immediate access to every publisher in the world, which makes my life a lot easier.
Nowadays, I do not have to wait for three weeks to get a book onto my shelf. Because of technology, it’s easy to search for new titles and to order them. I was able to start importing books from the U.S.A. My small bookshop transformed into a bigger one when I moved a few houses down along the riverfront. My Internet bookshop has transformed yet again into a global bookshop. My Web site has helped me to increase my sales.
The Internet has made it possible for small bookshops to become part of the global market. Before the Internet, a local bookseller had to rely on customers coming to the shop and buying books. Now much of a shop’s business is done online.
But it is also likely that the small bookseller will suffer with these changes. It’s now possible to sell books without even having a physical store. In the past three years, there are many big online booksellers in the Indian market, which makes it more difficult to sell books in a shop. Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful book, River of Smoke, for example, is available with a discount of 40% on one Web site. A bookseller like me gets only up to 35% from a publisher.
The online retail industry is expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2015. Amazon is reportedly entering the Indian market in early 2012. Competition is very high and cutthroat. This might mean that many smaller independent bookshops in India will close like everywhere else in the world.
But for now, I have 17,000 titles on my shelves. From where I sit, I can still see the buffalo swimming in the river. Pilgrims are still coming by my shop on their way to take their holy bath. Funeral processions pass. Not everything has changed.
Rakesh Kumar Singh is the owner of Harmony Book Shop, B1/158, Assi Ghat, Varanasi, India (www.harmonybooksonline.com).