It was the middle of the afternoon in the middle of June. As my airplane landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, the pilot welcomed us with the announcement that the outside temperature was 45 degrees Celsius. What! Was that true? Is it even possible to live in such conditions? I dreaded leaving the air conditioned comfort of the airport for the hazy heat that awaited me. Yet, I had to take that step. After all, I had an event lined up at a bookstore in a few hours.
Joys of the virtual world
It had been eight months since the launch of my book and I had not interacted in person with readers, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. To be honest, in the early weeks after the launch of the book, I was relieved to not have to meet groups of strangers or even round up enough people for an in person event.
I had been lucky enough to have many online interactions – individual interviews with writing groups, book clubs, literary magazines, podcasters and even individuals interested in the story behind my book. Given the fact that I had written and published my personal story on a very niche topic, I knew that it was not everyone’s cup of tea.
The limited interactions I was having in the online public space were satisfying. It had been extremely fulfilling to make one on one connections with readers who saw their own stories reflected in my book. Wasn’t that the purpose of it all? To make people feel less alone?
There’s something about meeting face to face
When I approached Kunzum, a new bookstore that was opening in multiple locations in the New Delhi area, I was pleased at the ease with which they agreed to have an author interaction session at their Vasant Vihar location on the date that I proposed. Now the main problem remained – who will discuss the book with me?
Luckily, the writing community into which I had wandered turned out to be a super supportive one. A fellow author, Shalini Mullick (author of Stars from the Borderless Sea) based in Gurgaon agreed at short notice to moderate the discussion in person. She had read and generously reviewed my book a few months ago. We had a lovely call before I left Singapore and then we met in person at Kuzun, Vasant Vihar.
All book lovers will agree that there is something special about being in a place surrounded by books. Add to it the new store smell that welcomed us when we entered the air conditioned interiors of the newly opened store, it felt like a small piece of heaven.
The store was small and cozy, with a coffee shop at one end and booths where you could sip and read at leisure. The store had a good selection of books for all ages. And most importantly, the staff was extremely friendly and helpful in setting up the chairs and the book display, arranging for a microphone and also agreeing to take pictures.
Shalini was as lovely in person as she had sounded on the phone. We hit it off instantly and arranged ourselves in a way that encouraged the attendees who showed up. The discussion was engaging and vibrant, with questions from readers about the writing process, life goals and the power of storytelling.
Onwards to Bangalore
In my experience, as an indie author, I have not had much success from independent bookstores despite reaching out to a long list of stores all over India. I find it quite perplexing that brick and mortar stores that claim behemoths like Amazon are squeezing the life out of them are not doing more to engage independent authors. Like literary print and digital publications/channels that have the opportunity to shape public opinion through intelligent evaluation and assessment of literature without bias to big name publishers or authors, small bookstores can do a lot to guide readers to little known books and authors by exploring synergies without corporate middlemen.
Yet, I must commend those stores that are open to the idea of giving a platform to lesser known authors. One of them is Bookworm bookstore located in Church Street. The owner, Mr. Krishna Gowda who recently celebrated 25 years of being in the bookselling business was happy to host a book signing session on the last Friday of June when I was in Bangalore.
His store is huge, with a labyrinth of rooms across floors that are stocked with books that seem endless. Mr. Gowda and his staff are so knowledgeable that even without a computer database, they are able to locate books within a few minutes. He presented me with a bouquet and served hot cups of really good coffee to everyone who attended. The attendees in turn ended up buying not just mine but several other books. It was proof that small bookstores and authors can truly help each other with not just footfalls and business but word of mouth and an ongoing relationship based on mutual respect.
Setting up bookstore events, showing up in person in multiple locations, meeting and greeting readers require a lot of patience and followup, not to mention time and effort. When seen from a purely financial point of view, the return is miniscule, frankly, not worth it. Yet, when seen from the lens of finding and interacting with that proverbial needle in the haystack, the engaged reader, it is definitely worth it.
I met several people who have inspired me and made me feel that I am a part of a community of literate and literary people who are eager to find and interact with like-minded people. That makes it all worthwhile.