For decades Rudramani R. Biradar has been owning bookstores in Colaba and Andheri. The bookstores called Book Lovers. That’s his only identity. The relationship with publishers were his strength. Few days back the Colaba bookstore was sold off. But sitting in the Lokhandwala store he still smiles, in celebration of a beautiful journey, fantastic memories and great books.
Transcripted by Insha Faridoon
I come from a small village called Gulbarga. There was an aunt of mine who had a small business of books. When she visited our village she brought me to Mumbai and introduced me to this business around 1969. I had just finished with my class 10th exams. My father had left his mortal form then. I was the eldest and decided to explore life and livelihood in the city. I stayed with her for a couple of years, working with her. After that I worked here and there for some more years. After ten years I managed to rent a shop and start my own bookstore.
Let me tell you, at that point of time the life was very simple and good. Now the thinking of people has changed. There is no satisfaction in spite of all the material gains. In the older times, people were easily satisfied. If someone had one house he would not yearn for a second one. My uncle used to stay in a house in Colaba on the fourth floor. This was around 1964-65. The building did not have apartment system, rather it was chawl system. A room of around 350 square feet was up for sale. A Sindhi brother was selling it. It was right next to my uncle’s rooms. Up for sale for 1800 Rupees. But my uncle simply said that he already had two rooms, what will he do with a third one? Not that he couldn’t afford. He just didn’t feel the need to accumulate wealth. The room laid vacant for around two years after which it was finally occupied.
At that point of time in our village, a tenth or twelfth pass person could land with a government job. The salaries were around 300-500 Rupees.
The later, to be honest. I observed that this bookstore business is good and you get to meet nice people. I found it interesting. I just thought that it would be lucrative because the profits were around 25 percent. I wondered what future I would have in the village! It took me ten years to finally find a shop for selling books by my own. It was from there that I started with a lot of hard work. All was fine till finally the time for closure has come now.
No, it won’t stay. All the stores are closing one by one. Oxford has closed down. Crossword is also reducing their shop space and are introducing other stuff in the shop. You cannot escape the truth. The expenses are increasing. Bookshops will not survive more than five years. Look around, all the bookshops have closed. There were so many in the same lane. Now you can see none. Till the time these online retailing goes on, our businesses cannot thrive. Every few years there are changes in business, but this one is wiping out masses. Shutting down our Colaba bookstore was really heart breaking. We had made it beautifully with good interiors. It was a lovely shop. But then, it happens.
My bookstore is not very huge but still the monthly expenses of maintaining a bookstore mount to a sizeable sum. I have to pay for electricity, to the salesmen, to the cleaners and sweepers. We cannot afford these expenses when day-by-day the business is weakening. The question is why should I take this much of pain when I am can’t even make a lac of rupees after all my hard work. It is better that I rent out my shop. It will give me much more money without any efforts. I can easily rent it for 2 lac rupees. All we shopkeepers wanted was, control the policies. I am not saying that close the online ventures. Just regulate them. The discounts should be managed uniformly. The readers of books are not poor people, they are all well off. They can afford to buy books. 10-15 rupees will not make much of a difference to anyone. Then why spoil the market? Nobody has thought about us – neither the authors, nor publishers, not the distributors, not even the government.
I had opened this store in Andheri in 1993. It has been 23 years. I had invested so much in my shop and its interiors. All bookstore owners have just one demand and it is to control the online prices of books. It is a wrong precedent. Why do they print a certain MRP on the book? It is to sell it at a certain price. And while I am getting the commission, I am investing in the shop, its maintenance, electricity, shop workers, travelling etc. I end up making a profit of no more than 10-15 percent and through this I get my bread and butter. A book of 200 Rupees MRP, I get it for 150, but online it is being sold for 100 rupees. Now you tell me how I am going to beat this competition? How will I run my business? We have no option but to close our stores. We will look for other options, maybe I will go back to my village and do farming. I have known many distributers and publishers for 49 years. They did not have proper chairs to sit, forget about plush offices. For years they have earned through the Indian retailers. Today the same publishers and distributers do not want the retailers. I promote their books and I sell their products but they do not value me.
When crossword entered the market, people were skeptical that they will close down small shop owners. It did not happen. The small shop owners rather thrived with Crossword because the awareness about books was increasing. More and more people were interested in books because of this big store Crossword. We all should salute Crossword. If people needed a book or magazine, they would not travel all the way to Crossword to buy that book. They would go to nearest store and this way small bookstore owners were benefitted. But now the situation has reached such a low point that huge stores like Crossword and Landmark had to close down. There is no growth in retail right now.
Every shopkeeper purchases or hires the place for store from his own pocket, establishes it on his own. Nobody has helped us here.
No, we did not. Even if the loans were available, we did not fall for it because nobody gives you loan for free. It is always chargeable. One has to pay interest on it. I earn only for those ten hours when my shop is open but if I take a loan, I have to pay for it 24 hours of the day. The interest keeps on increasing even when you are sleeping. If you can manage to do business on your own do it, else don’t do. But loans are a strict no!
Be it the government or local moneylender, their intentions are always bad. They want to extract your savings completely. For middle-class people like us, the demands of life are very simple. I don’t need anything more than my simple meal of pulses and rice. If I remove the expenses of my shop, my personal expense on daily basis is not more than fifty rupees. I walk to and from my home. It is some ten minutes away from here. My age is around 70 years, I firmly believe that you do not need a lot of money for a good life. This is my personal experience. Eat good food, live well, think well and maintain relationships with good people and you will not need much more. This can make you happy. When we become greedy, we become unhappy. We did not bring anything with us in this world so we needn’t leave a lot of things behind as well. Then why should I remain worried?
I was very close to the owners of Rupa Publication. That was another generation. Mr. S. K. Mehra and Mr. R. K. Mehra used to call me Mani bhai. R. K. Mehra once approached me with some books saying that they are not selling. He had imported 500 copies and only some 40-50 copies had sold. I won’t name the book.
I asked him to send all the copies promising that I will sell them all. He wondered how I will achieve that when in the whole of Mumbai only 50 copies were sold! It was not that I bargained with him to lower the price since they were not selling. I just had my relationships in the market. With many readers my recommendations were a rule. I just pushed a little to create the demand! So many people later complained to the Mehra’s later, that I did not give a copy of the book to them. (laughs)
The book was in the market for six months, nobody bought it and now everyone wanted a copy.
The customers. I work here promoting the books, I manage a one to one equation with all my customers, I understand their likes and dislikes. Accordingly I recommend the books to them. As a shopkeeper you need to understand and believe in your book and promote it with passion. Just putting a book in the shelf will not make it sell. For selling a book you need to know it and know your customer as well. When the customer comes to our shop, we need to be nice to them and pay attention to their needs. More so with new customers so that they can be free and frank with us. The customer should have a feeling of acquaintance with the shop, some kind of affiliation. I have not furnished this shop for myself. It is for my customers. If I am coming to the shop each day, I am coming for my customers. If I don’t respect and welcome them, there is no point in my coming and sitting in the store. If the customer is comfortable, he/she will trust you and there lies the business.
We bond strongly with the customers but as a shopkeeper we maintain a professional distance with them. I would not want to transgress these boundaries.
I believed that if I have to increase my business, I have to increase the footfall in my shop. The more the number of visitors, the more my business will expand. I always believed that if the customers are fully satisfied they will visit again and again. If the customers want to bargain a bit, we let them do it, so that they feel empowered. Sometimes, there are regular customers who don’t make the full payment and at times even forget to pay the remaining amount, but we don’t mind. We want to retain them as customers.
But sometimes the customers may take books and come to return them after a few days saying they didn’t like it. There have been some customers who would pretend that they don’t have the time to skim the books in the store and would take 5-6 books home saying that they will go through them and decide which one to buy. The customer will then keep the books for around a week and return after reading, but they’ll tell us that the books didn’t excite them. When the other customers look at those books, they do not find them fresh. These are some of the reasons we don’t want to get too close and personal with customers because at times the familiarity leads to unwarranted demands.
On a personal note, I do not want to refuse anything to my customers. After a lot of observation I have realized that all customers should be treated only as customers. Not as friends. The relationship should be strictly professional; else the problems arise.
When I entered the book trade there were not too many English authors. There was only one publisher, Orient Paperback, and a very few authors. Manohar Malgaonkar used to write and Raja Rao was being published with Orient. And there was Khushwant Singh. He was an editor with Illustrated Weekly. He used to come to my shop frequently and give me free editions of Illustrated Weekly. I still remember those days. He was a very nice man. I have seen him very closely. He had written an article about the beggars and to prepare for that, he himself had acted as a beggar from Times of India Office to Fountain circle. He wanted to relate to their feelings.
At that time there were not too many magazines. There were only 3-4 magazines that belonged to Times of India. Another one belonged to Baburao Patel called Mother India. Picture Post was a film magazine and Readers Digest. I guess there were hardly ten magazines in English. The most expensive magazine was Mother India, costing around 3 Rupees.
After the computer system came, the number of magazines went on increasing. Now there are countless magazines.
Once upon a time there were no management books in India except Peterson. Even the Tata’s used to buy 25-50 copies of those Management books to gift in conferences. We used to get a lot of imported books and comics then, but India’s publication is growing and now we get lots of Indian publications in comparison to imported ones. This is my observation of the three generations I have witnessed. Initially there were very few students studying in English Medium schools and therefore very few English writers. But as the focus on English education increased, we also witnessed the growth in the number of writers writing in English.
I will tell you an incident about my children. I used to put a tape in the recorder to tell stories to my son. He got into the habit of listening to stories. I am not very highly educated, but I tried reading the classics, so that I can educate my children. I realized it later that I had committed a mistake by introducing my son to gadgets. Soon I made it a rule for him to come to the store and read for a few hours.
When my second child was born I decided to do away with all the gadgets and gave books. Since he was two and a half year old, he started reading stories. He has read all the classics put here in the racks. He is now in twelfth standard, but still keeps reading the books.
I will tell that reading books is a very good habit; it’s a great habit. It opens your mind and broadens your horizon. Books are like miracles. Uneducated people can be maneuvered in many ways. Books give you the information in the form of stories which shape your ethics and imagination, both.
I am happy with my choice of profession. I have spent my life on this. I believe that nothing is permanent in life. Businesses change every 10-15 years. Even this online boom is not permanent. It too will change with time. Something else would take over. That’s a common rule. It’s for greater good.