That's one evening I am not going to forget easily. It was October 2005. A colleague, who is also a good friend, and I were at Landmark, the bookstore, trying to make the most of the annual sale. As we went about picking books, I eagerly waited for the phone in my pocket to vibrate — our salaries were expected to be credited that evening, and as soon as the money hit the account, I was to receive a text message. Since my friend hadn't signed up for the intimation facility, he walked up to me every now and then to ask, “Did the SMS come?” We were getting panicky. Our evening depended entirely on the message from the bank.
Finally it arrived, just when we had run out of patience and were considering putting the carefully picked books back on the racks. It is difficult to describe in words the relief that overcame us; suffice to say that we pulled out our debit cards with flourish.
Today, even though that particular evening remains in my mind, the whole experience of whiling away time at bookshops has already become a distant memory. I simply can't recall the last time I went to a bookshop with the specific purpose of buying books. Why should I when I have the bookshop coming to my doorstep — that too with books I thought would be available only in a quaint bookstore in some corner of Europe? Can life get any better?
If you are a book-loving internet-savvy Indian and haven't heard of Flipkart yet, you are probably living in a cave. Flipkart, India's answer to Amazon.com, has brought about a revolution so sweeping that it is soon going to change the way the lay Indian shops — and not just for books. Why should you go to a bookshop and pay Rs. 250 for a book (not to mention the hundred bucks you shell out as autorickshaw fare) when Flipkart delivers the same book at your doorstep for just Rs. 188? For the discerning reader, it's not just about the discount but also the access to books that are never available in Indian bookshops.
Take Henry Miller, for instance. He is one writer I don't just admire, but also envy. But what do I find of him in the bookshops? Two long-unsold copies of Tropic of Cancer and may be a solitary copy of Sexus? And maybe a surprise copy of Black Spring? But run a search for Henry Miller on Flipkart, and you will hit a goldmine. For a few thousand rupees, you can own every single word Miller wrote in his lifetime. Ditto for other authors. You no longer have to lament: “Oh, I love his writing! He wrote that great book, what's its name? I tried looking for it, you know, but couldn't find it anywhere.”
The fun has just begun. It will be more fun starting next year when Amazon begins its India operations. According to informed sources, it has already set up an office in Bangalore (Flipkart is also headquartered in Bangalore), though it remains to be seen whether Amazon is going to function under its own brand name or piggyback on a local franchisee.
The surging popularity of e-tail is, needless to say, giving sleepless nights to the large chains of bookstores. Stand-alone bookstores, which are run out of passion for the written word and which have a loyal clientele, may still survive the onslaught as long as the elderly owner, most likely to be well-read himself, genially guides customers into buying the right books. But it's the big chains, who shell out a fortune each month to maintain their stores in plush malls or in prime locations in various cities, which will take the hit. Eventually they will sell less books and more of other items.
For once, I am not complaining about the changing times. More cars mean more pollution and congestion, more connectivity means less privacy, but more books only mean a bigger library at home. Which person in his or her right mind would ever grudge that?
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, October 1, 2011.