Sellers, Stores, and Stalls

I return to this blog after a slight delay, largely caused by the Head of the Department (HoD) of English informing me that I had six days to prepare a research talk to the entire university. Fortunately, that’s all done.

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Bookstalls in the Kolkata university district

Returning to the subject of popular Indian writing in English and the book industry that’s fundamental to its composition, I’ve been thinking a lot about the part that bookstores play.  Let me be more precise. When it comes to India and book sales, the better term might be booksellers. The difference is significant in India. A bookseller is not necessarily bookstore. A bookstore looks more or less what most of you readers here might recognize. A spacious, well-lit, neatly organized space that approximates a library with more color colorful signage, clearly demarcated interest sections, and probably less comfortable seating. In my city of Vadodara, population 1.3 million people, there is one single bookstore. In the large city of over 7 million about 60 miles away, there are three or four bookstores. As I noted in my previous post, more books are being sold than ever before in this country, but it’s pretty clear that most of them are not sold at bookstores. 

Bookshops and Bookstalls

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Remember that almost 90% of the industry is targeted for education (see previous post.) The local bookseller here in India is thus very likely not a bookstore at all, but a bookshop (or modest stall) that almost exclusively sells schoolbooks. These spaces tend to appear improvisational. The books are highly organized according to the logic of the vendor and stacked to maximize space, often from floor to ceiling. Used books abound. Newer books are packaged to look new. New books are prominently displayed and sealed in plastic. Browsing is limited to what you can see from where you stand, which is sometimes on the street itself. And the vendors are modestly dressed working-class fellows making their living off their one-man operations. Put simply, the focus of the bookshop is the transaction. You need that Intro Psychology textbook your professor assigned? The bookshop is where you go, and they likely know exactly what you need. Preparing for the accountancy certification exam? I can show to you at least four places within two miles of my flat that have what you need and at a good (and sometimes negotiable) price.

Bookstores

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Landmark Bookstore, Chennai

In contrast, the bookstore is where you’ll find what we usually think about when we think of a book (see previous entry). Novels, memoirs, histories, biographies, current event analyses, self-help selections, biographies, and so forth. The space encourages aimless browsing. All the inventory is new. The building is air conditioned. The decoration is lively, music is playing, the books are arranged in attractive eye-catching patterns, and so on. Whereas the bookshop focuses on you getting work done, the bookstore is about enabling your leisure time, or what you do when you’re not working.

It’s pretty clear that bookstores in India serve the elite class. Most of the titles they sell are well above the daily wage of the average worker,  272 INR  or a little over $5. My copy of The Catcher in the Rye was 299 INR, which is about where the popular texts I’m studying are priced. And, of course, in addition to having the money to be a browser at these establishments, one needs the education and leisure time to shop for books. Oh yeah, and LARGE majority of the books are in English. Titles in Hindi, Marathi, or Bengali—depending where you are—are found on a few shelves in the back.

We might say that bookstores create a class experience. Or put another way, they produce a reader, and one who is marked by his or her class position and education. To enter into one of these establishments is to be showered with the possibilities of elite living. Just like in the United States, the bookstore in India sells fewer and fewer books and more and more lifestyle merchandising. Here, it’s boutique stationary, designer pens, and digital readers (which are only now catching on). According to one study the share of books in the past few years sold at one of the largest chains, Crossword Books, has shrunk from 65% to 55%. But more, it’s the uniformed security guard who opens the door and ensures that I’m the kind of customer worthy of entry. And, like in the States, it’s the coffee bar with overpriced whipped cream-topped corn-syrup concoctions (roughly 80-300 INR.) Bookstores are not public spaces for readers, but private enclaves for bourgeois consumers. In many ways bookstores parallel the malling of India (and the rest of the globe), where enormous full-service and heavily fortified cathedrals of capitalist consumption have become the playground of middle-class leisure.

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Oxford Bookstore, Kolkata

Bookstores are where the popular Indian writing in English is primarily sold. Of course, if the title is popular enough, used copies will find their ways into the bookstalls. My point, however, is that the elite space of bookstores parallels the elite space of the popular texts themselves. In other words, if popular Indian writing is largely found in bookstores, which are not “popular” spaces at all, then its readers are already determined by the select group of folks the bookstore serves. And the details of how it serves them says a lot about who they think readers are. What counts as popular must be more about market share than population. In fact, Indian authors at Crossword Books account for 45% of all book sales, a figure that has grown by 25% per cent since 2008.

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Latest romance novel by former Bollywood actress, Twinkle Khanna. Oxford Bookstore, Kolkata

This really matters when this writing is not just “popular,” but is frequently touted as the voice of “contemporary India.” And even more important when Crossword Books has now launched its own publishing venture and plans to print 300 titles in the next three years. Bookstores have become big players in determining which Indians count when we’re talking about the “new” India. And, of course, which ones don’t.

And we haven’t even gotten to what’s in the books yet!


One thought on “Sellers, Stores, and Stalls

  1. I’m really enjoying reading your blog, Rich. This project is interesting and it’s a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about since I started reading more Indian literature after moving here.

    Like

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