Maina Bhagat is Director of the Apeejay Oxford Bookstores Pvt. Limited, a leading national chain of bookstores. Headquartered at the 94-year old iconic Oxford Bookstore, Kolkata, she has been closely involved with conceiving and promoting creative literary initiatives that engage readers and audiences with books and ideas. She is also one of the founding Directors of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, an international festival reflecting the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of the city. Bhagat has served as a member of International Advisory Council at the Lahore Literary Festival. With equal passion for the Culinary Arts and Literature, she pursued the former, briefly, at Cornell University and the Culinary Institute of America, culminating in her fortnightly food column in The Statesman, Kolkata in the 90’s, and her work as a Food Stylist and Consultant thereafter. She has been an active participant and contributor to the life and times of the city, where she has lived for four decades. She interacts actively with the educational and cultural sectors of the city and nationally. Maina Bhagat is a keen observer – and reader – of the life of a bookstore! An Honors Graduate of the Presidency College, Madras University, she has recently been awarded for her contribution to the Book and Publishing Industry by the Governor of West Bengal.

Interview Excerpts

Circumstances, and a job transfer, brought my family to Calcutta in the early-sixties, and I fell in love with both the city – and the Oxford Bookstore Lending Library! So the association really began then. Books have always been a passion, and when the opportunity of a consultancy at the bookstore came my way in 1999, it was an offer I could not refuse. Ever since, it has been a wonderful and truly enriching journey – a learning experience with miles to go!

Oxford Bookstore Kolkata is India’s best loved Heritage Bookstore, soon to celebrate a Century in Books. The iconic store enjoys an enviable reputation both nationally and internationally. Priti Paul, Director Apeejay Surendra Group, the creative force behind the Brand, had promised booklovers of Calcutta, the city she loves and grew up in, a contemporary, multidimensional experience, in keeping with international trends – while tapping into the invaluable character and patina of the heritage store. A promise fulfilled with panache. At Oxford Bookstore Kolkata, technology is married to tradition and while there is a huge selection of the very best in books on our shelves, the walls speak, too!

Yes, it is, indeed, difficult to treat a book strictly as a commodity! However to further the cause of reading, and the promotion of books, publishers and retailers need to – and have indeed – devised marketing strategies that address the requirements of this important segment. Bookstores today offer a multidimensional experience to cater to informed readers . And this has always been a key to success.

One author would be difficult to name; it may require an entire book! While We have hosted the most acclaimed authors from across the globe such as Sir V.S. Naipul, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Gunter Grass, Paul Theroux, Anita Desai, Mohamad Hanif, Ben Okri and others, it has always been a great pleasure, personally, to see an author evolve from his/her very first novel to his fourth, all of them launched at Oxford Bookstore! This has been very gratifying – to offer a platform to young talented writers, and chart their stories, as well as to interact with the very best authors from across the world! Anecdotally, when the celebrated author Alexander McCall Smith came to tea, he paused a full five minutes as he entered the store. This, he shared, was his usual practice when he entered a bookstore – to experience its soul! Happily, Oxford Bookstore passed his very stringent test with flying colours and we discovered a soulmate!

Oxford Bookstore prides itself on being ‘much more than a bookstore’. We offer the entire wondrous experience of connecting with world of books – and the key phrase in your question is ‘readers who love to come and spend time there’. Buying a book is usually a not a hurried affair unless one is armed with a list. One needs to browse, dwell on the cover and blurbs, perhaps make a choice over a cup of tea and so on. We offer the perfect ambience, the widest range of titles, and our readers love to spend time at Oxford Bookstore!

This has been the subject of much heated debate. At Oxford Bookstore we are happy to stock titles across the spectrum from Chetan Bhagat to best sellers and national and international classics. The profile of our readers is very eclectic.

Such ‘specializations’ are not necessarily restrictive. When you read Amitav Ghosh, for instance, you are aware that the book has been intensely and meticulously researched, has a compelling story line, and a certain literary style. Then there are Travel writers, Romance fiction writers, Writers of fiction for Young Adults, Crime Writers and far too many other genres to list here. These writers have built their readership on the great facility and expertise in these genres.

Book Launches, Literary Festivals, online and social media promotions are now all par for the course. Promotion of a title does assume importance in today’s marketing scenario. Increasingly, authors such as Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghvi and others have brilliant marketing strategies of their own.

A day at Oxford Bookstore is truly a ‘slice of life’ experience in several worlds – the world of the authors who create the books, living or dead, the characters they create who reside in the books and live in reader memory, and the outer world of a legion of book lovers and buyers! All these world are almost palpable. Our Database spans several generations, with innumerable preferences and idiocyncracies. This could cover a huge range of behavior and buying patterns.

Long live College Street! Kolkata is the City of Books, and people save precious funds to buy their prized titles at the Kolkata Book Fair, College Street and at the Oxford Bookstore Annual Sale at discounted rates! It is perhaps one of the few cities in India, where books are still presented as wedding gifts. At our book events, many in the audience may not afford to buy the book launched, but will have an in-depth knowledge about the author, his writing, and would have read reviews and will invariably raise relevant questions. It is another matter that they may continue endlessly, but that is Kolkata for you!


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