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How to open a new bookshop during the pandemic: The story of Sudarsan Books of Nagercoil

Members of the founding family recount the history and the leap of faith.


Sudarsan Books News & Events

bookstore – the kind of lovingly curated space that tends to evoke passion in millions of book lovers. And at the moment that would otherwise have been the apex of this emotional curve, we instead found ourselves facing a much starker question: would we even be able to keep this project of 20 years alive long enough for the metamorphosis to happen? The question held all the more weight given the unique position that our store occupied – since its inception, Sudarsan Books has remained the only store of its kind in the district. At the turn of the millennium, Nagercoil still didn’t have a proper bookstore. Instead, what the town had were one or two over-the-counter bookstores, which didn’t operate very differently from small pharmacies or grocery stores. They stocked mostly schoolbooks and competitive exam guides – things they knew would sell even in a small town. Sometimes, one could find copies of Grisham, Sheldon, Ludlum or Cook – enduring staples for such establishments, which often ended up downing shutters after a few years.

Introduction to browsing

The premise of the bookstore I wanted to open, then, was something so seemingly simple that it would be glaringly obvious to a passer-by today: a shop that customers could walk into and pore over a selection that wasn’t just limited to educational texts. The first iteration of the store in 2001 was on a humble scale: a small rented space in the old commercial heart of the town, where a stately British-era clock tower acted as the nucleus of dozens of stores. It was a modest endeavour at first, with a small selection of fiction and non-fiction, aside from the usual mountains of school textbooks and guides. The goal, of course, was to gradually diversify our collection in both Tamil and English after observing the areas of interest of customers. But even within this limited framework, the challenges the store faced quickly became apparent. Many customers were hesitant to step in and actually browse, used as they were to simply stating a title and having it brought to a counter. The idea of a visit to a bookstore being an adventure in curiosity didn’t occur to them; there were many occasions when I had to persuade customers to step in, pick up a book and simply explore it. Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of those early days was the realisation that the reading habit wasn’t just ignored, it was often actively discouraged. Parents usually desisted from bringing their children to bookstores at all, and on the rare occasion they did, tended to dissuade them from any purchases. “You already have books like this,” or “You shouldn’t waste your time on this when you have studies,” were lines that became refrains over the course of time. We found ourselves in the same situation as our handful of predecessors – school texts and competitive exam guides became our biggest sellers, followed by activity books for pre-school children. Any other category was a distant third, despite our best efforts to draw attention to them.

Going to the reader

Our first big turning point came when we decided to hold book fairs at schools and colleges throughout the year. Schools were amenable to the idea, as long as we avoided exam season. And for the first time, we had the chance to display our books to a wide range of students. Many of them came across young adult fiction and classics for the first time at those fairs. It was immensely heartening to see students indulge in their curiosity of books, poring over everything from Amar Chitra Katha or Nancy Drew to recent additions (at that time) like Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl. It was not uncommon for very young children to walk up with ten or twenty rupees – their pocket money for the whole month – and ask if there was a book they could buy. These book fairs were an evolution that allowed our bookstore to continue surviving in such unfavorable circumstances. We quickly made a point of ensuring that we had something for every single student’s capabilities, hoping that even a small collection of fairy tales or an affordable edition of a classic would spark their joy for reading, and perhaps convince their parents that a visit to the store might not be as pointless an exercise as they imagined. Ironically enough, I realized with time that this mission to increase exposure and aid the formation of a healthy reading culture was a key reason that prevented the store from becoming the kind of establishment I first envisaged. By the early 2010s, we were committed to the idea that if readers would not come to us, we would go to them. And go to them we did: it would have been more accurate to refer to us as a wandering troupe of booksellers that roamed the entire district. As time passed, schools went from being mildly interested in the concept of a book fair to enthusiastically embracing it. Parents, too, gradually became receptive to the idea of children reading books for leisure, though it remained a sort of grudging tolerance in most cases. The downside was that the store became little more than a slightly organized warehouse to keep books and excess stock in between such journeys, as we had become disillusioned by the seemingly enduring lack of interest in the joys of exploring the bookstore as a physical, curated space. More practical concerns, such as a lack of parking space in a then-choked commercial district, exacerbated the situation.

Starting afresh

Heading into 2020, however, I could sense a shift in the way bookstores, and reading as a habit, were being perceived in Kanyakumari. The underlying factors are, of course, many: a rise in literacy rates, exposure created by people emigrating to cities for work before returning to the district and a general awareness of the multi-faceted benefits of cultivating a reading habit. This and a number of other moving parts seemed to fall in place: a new commercial center was being formed in a different part of town, and I had a unique opportunity to try and give shape to a bookstore afresh. The enthusiastic response and support from my family sealed the deal, and I spent days conjuring up the dreams that I had made a habit of dismissing as unrealistic over the past two decades. Just as the outer structure of the building where the store would be housed was completed, the spectre of a possible pandemic became a bleak reality, and plans were immediately shelved. During the total lockdown, I found myself grappling with doubts on my better days and outright hopelessness on others – how long would the store be closed? Would the planned move even be possible? Would the store even be in a position to open again? After being caught in this haze for a couple of months, it became clear that I would have to find a way to adapt. But how does one do that with a bookstore? School season, the period which usually witnessed the biggest sales, was fast approaching and there was no indication of schools reopening. Even if learning moved online, I realized that families would need a safe way to receive the necessary school texts – physical books continue to be the most expedient and accessible option in small towns. I asked the Nagercoil Municipal Corporation if the store could be permitted to deliver textbooks to customers’ doorsteps, following all pandemic-related protocols and ensuring a contactless delivery system. The resulting venture proved to be a lifeline for both the store and the students. Very soon, we were flooded with orders from towns and villages around Nagercoil, and in some instances, from nearby districts as well.

Using the hiatus

Now I could at least ensure that the store wouldn’t shut down for good. But the larger concern remained would we be able to execute our planned shift? Throughout the lockdown, we received news of bookstores in other parts of the country closing down. However, I realised that the period between the easing of guidelines and the resumption of some level of normal commercial activity presented a window in which the work to set up the bookstore could be completed. If done right, small groups could complete the work over a period of time while adhering to the stipulated safety norms. It would be done, I hoped, by the time these norms were relaxed and some footfall could be expected. Unlike the helplessness of indecision, the challenge of building our new space proved to be both cathartic and empowering. With the die already thrown in this gamble, my family and I chose to focus instead on ensuring that this would be the bookstore that we always wanted. There was something viscerally thrilling about finally manifesting our dream of two decades, even if it was happening under the shadow of a pandemic. With the help of our talented staff and artisans, we obsessed over every single detail of the store – which shelves would allow our books to shine? What layout would be inviting for customers? How can we present a diverse range of books while keeping the tastes of our customers in mind? When we threw open our doors on December 7, it was with a sense of both accomplishment and nervousness. We finally had the dream space we always wanted, but would the people who walked through those doors feel the same way? That week was undoubtedly one of the most uplifting ones I’ve experienced this year – customers in masks walked in almost ceaselessly, poring over books, taking some away and leaving many suggestions on how else we could improve our selection. “For so long, we wanted a bookstore like this in Nagercoil, just like the ones we see in the big cities,” was the heartfelt refrain that most of them left us with. Seeing people walk into the store and offer their support despite the lingering fear they face every time they leave their homes was much-needed encouragement after months of uncertainty. I would be lying if I said my anxiety about the bookstore has been laid to rest. Running a bookstore in the long term continues to be a daunting endeavor, and will undoubtedly necessitate countless more innovations in the coming days. The reality that no independent bookstore can match the sheer reach and resources of large online retailers will be the foremost challenge in our post-pandemic world. But equally, I continue to appreciate just how much things have changed for the better since I first thought about this bookstore at the start of the 21st century. It was a thought that crystallized while I watched, with surprise, as a customer picked up the store’s only copy of Becoming, Michelle Obama’s autobiography – one of our more expensive editions – and walked towards the cash counter. That moment represented everything that would have been impossible a mere 10 years ago, and everything that the present now signified. More than anything else, I finally saw someone do what I had been hoping to witness for the last 20 years. They walked into a bookstore, browsed curiously through our collection, and took a chance on a book that caught their eye. Today, this is enough. This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.