Every city I travel to, my must go list will include local bookshops or libraries. During Singapore & US trips I have spent countless hours in Borders, similarly at Barnes & Noble in the USA, W H Smith in London and Airports around the world. In India, any shopping trip is not complete for me without customary visit and purchase (to the chiding from wife) of books from Landmark or Higginbothams.
Speaking of Landmark bookstores, for many in Chennai Ms Hemu Ramaiah, Founder of Landmark was an inspiration, both as a successful women entrepreneur and as a book connoisseur. The round bookshelf in the lobby of Landmark store at Nungambakkam Apex Plaza was the sanctum sanctorum for all book lovers in Chennai. It had handpicked selections by Ms.Ramaiah of the books she has read herself and willing to recommend. I have never gone wrong by buying a book from that shelf, though it didn’t restrict itself to top-selling books or rare books. The bookshelf had a personal touch to it, the magic sauce of Landmark’s success.
One bookstore that had huge impact on me and helped me shape my career in Software was Eswar Book house in T.Nagar. Founder of the store Mr.Periasamy was not a graduate or computer engineer, but his technical book recommendations were always spot-on. Foundation for my knowledge in Clipper, Assembly, C++ and Windows Programming were made thanks to the imported books which he only stocked in those days.
In the USA the arrival of Amazon in 1994 as an Online Bookstore marked the end of glory days of physical bookstores. This climate change didn’t reach Indian shores in any significant way for another 15 years, till Flipkart was founded in 2007 modelling itself on Amazon USA where both of its founders (Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal had worked before). In that same year (2007) one more change hit the book business worldwide and it was Amazon’s launch of Kindle e-reader; till then Sony had one but every time I tried one in a store my urge to buy one were receding!
Till then though few online stores were selling books non had any catalogue that was worth its name. My choices were limited to buying physical books to India from Amazon USA (and paying exorbitant shipping cost) or from 2010 when I got my first Kindle was to buy e-books (which too was expensive). Till I got my Kindle Paperwhite Touch early this year, the experience of reading on an e-device was never comfortable, compared to a paper book and its intoxicating smell of dead trees and joy of flipping the pages pretending to yourself of having finished reading the book.
In the next few years, it was an onslaught of online book stores in India including Flipkart, BookAdda and recently Amazon India jumping one over the other with expanded catalogues and unbelievable discounts from the cover price. My brain won over my heart, my purchase of books from physical stores including Landmark came down to a few a year, most of it being done in the annual Chennai Book fair. Another trend that was hitting the business of physical bookstores including Landmark was the huge decline of Music CD sales. That business entirely moved to Mobile & Digital (MP3) downloads, with it it took away almost all the profits of physical bookstores. On top of this tsunamis, the real-estate rental costs in all Tier-1 (Metros) & Tier-2 of India skyrocketed in the last ten years. All this together has sounded the death knell for local bookstores.
Did these local bookstores had any chance of winning?. Given their brand value, reach, partnerships and customer loyalty I will risk of saying they did. Emotions aside, in reality they offered their business in a platter to be disrupted by the online stores.
What could have been done differently by the physical stores?.
Foremost, all of them should have optimized their supply chain & inventory towards offering the best prices to the customer. This would have signalled to its customers that the brand cares for them and is not taking them (loyal customers) for a ride.
All the bookstores should have gone online much earlier and with decent investments in technology platforms. You might argue that I am writing this with the benefit of hindsight which none of them had years ago. If for a minute if I am agreeing to that, you will still agree with me that almost all Online Shopping sites in India prior to Flipkart was pathetic. They were a disgrace to India’s image as a Software super-power. As CEO of an IT Services & Consulting firm, I have had the first-hand experience of interacting with CIOs & CFOs of many of these brands in India. Across the board all enterprises in India were and many still are unaware & unwilling to see the tangible benefits of spending for quality technology solutions.
In today’s Big-Data and analytics driven world the personal touches followed successfully by Mr.Periasamy & Ms.Ramaiah are lost for good.
Landmark, for example, could have continued their “connoisseur” pick of books both offline & online, which lost flavour after Ms Hemu Ramaiah sold the business to Tata’s. This could have been a huge differentiator before the Flipkart newsletters (who were pretty late to this) and the social suggestions of GoodReads.com.
Why am I writing this long post today?
Over the years I was feeling sad reading the flow of news on bookstore closures. First, it was Oxford closing their stores in Chennai, then Shoppers Stop deciding to downsize their Crossword stores in Chennai to one (I loved their Venkatanarayana store in T.Nagar). Then early this year it was news in The Hindu of the closure of the iconic Nungambakkam store of Landmark. Unlike writer Bishwanath Ghosh I don’t feel a hint of guilt on this, but I share his state of melancholy. A few months back it was depressing to see Spencer Plaza Landmark store gotten dull and their book section reduced to few rows. I remembered the glory days when entering that shop was difficult during weekends.
Yesterday the feeling overwhelmed me when I saw empty shelves in Chennai Citi Centre Landmark and the teller telling that they are closing this store shortly. As a remembrance, I purchased two books – Doctor Dread by Ibne Safi and The Cypress Tree: A Love Letter to Iran by Kamin Mohammadi. The irony was I got both the books for just Rs.150, a whopping discount of 70% from the cover price.
What I will miss more with these bookstores closing?. It may sound trivial but in Landmark’s case, I will miss reading the thought provoking quotes printed in their plastic carry bags (seen below).
Update 17th April 2015:
Today I happened to visit Chennai’s once the one and only mall “Spencer Plaza”, Mount Road and I got shocked to see many of the shops vacated with To-let signs, including my favourite Landmark bookstore. There was a sign saying their store is now at Amby Skywalk Mall, I suppose that’s the last of Landmark store in Chennai.
Update 5th July 2019:
I like this quote by Mr Franck Riester, the culture minister of France published in an article in The Economist:
“On the Internet, you find what you look for, but only in a bookshop do you find what you were not looking for.”
I don’t agree with subsidies or laws to clamp down on discount selling of books, but I do miss the charm of old world bookstores. The smell of books and serendipity that a bookstore offers has alluded online – but this is a problem I am sure can be solved with future technology and smarter business models.