The Reader – Or was it “such stuff as dreams are made on”?
It was a chilly Gurgaon winter morning of the grey yellow variety when moist air clings to the smog and chokes out the sunlight. It was the type of morning that you squint at with one eye and dive back into the snugness of your quilt. It was the sort of morning people call in sick: little toe of the right foot arthritic; feel dizzy when I sit up; cramps in my right hand; cramps in my left thigh … It was on this December morning that I sat bolt upright in bed and announced I was going to open a bookstore.
Incredulous looks from everyone.
“Just like that?” “Just like that!” Premises? Revenue model? Marketing strategy? Everything was ordained to fall into place. No thought required: The Reader it was going to be. And The Reader would be up and running within three months.
Quite by accident, a couple of years earlier, I had found this magic-faraway-tree kind of bookstore at Central Arcade, where a tiny lady sat behind a tiny desk. She had a captivating charm that was surpassed only by her knowledge of books: she could talk about any book under the sun. Well, almost. Of course, she knew every book she had on her shelves and rare was the walk-in who left without a bagful of books. Her eyes shone and twinkled whenever we talked about her favourite authors and, as we became friends, I picked up a rudimentary understanding of how the book trade worked.
My inspiration came from Moni and The Word.
When I asked Moni for help in setting up The Reader … all she asked me was “Are you sure you want to do this?” I found a small store at Galleria, which had a flagstone floor: more than anything else, I fell in love with the floor! In less than forty-eight hours, I had the lease drawn up and signed. We set to work with a deadline of two-and-a-bit months and, to set things rolling, I had invitations to the opening of The Reader printed and distributed. Lines had been drawn. Then the frenzy set in. Two months can be a very short time, specially when the “and-a-bit” comfort zone has been spent on arguing about interiors and furniture and haggling about prices with fabricators.
At some point of time thereabouts, good counsel prevailed and I left the decision making to Moni, while I focussed on the execution!
With exactly sixty days to go, Moni slipped and fractured her ankle.
Forgotten was The Reader. For the next three weeks, until Moni was able to hobble around in her bright blue cast, I minded shop for her and thought I would get in some good practice smiling at her customers and trying to sound intelligent. After the first week, I realised I wasn’t much of a success of it and reverted to being my grouchy self with men and flirting madly with the ladies. It worked … sales picked up and I kept my fingers crossed that husbands and wives wouldn’t compare notes! By the end of January, The Reader had a freshly painted shop, a new bank account, several cartons of books. And nothing else! Fabricators were behind schedule, wiring men were behind schedule, printers were behind schedule: and I had a date to keep! At one stage I considered writing to each person I had invited to the opening, regretting the delay and postponing the opening by a week or two.
Moni would hear none of it as she hobbled about in her plaster cast cracking the proverbial whip. The wiring men first. Get the wiring done, put up the lights and get out. Thank you very much. “Now we can work late.” Fabricators and printers and suppliers next. Deliver or face cancellation. They delivered. “Now, Mr. Verma, get your act together, complete your book inventories. Work through the night if you have to.” “Yes, Ma’am!”
The Reader opened as scheduled on the third of March.
It was uncharted territory: I did not know what to expect and where I wanted to take the business. I was retired and had been an agriculturist and a tea planter for too many years to immediately settle into a business I knew nothing about. I was suddenly very nervous! Here I was, doing something I had dreamt up on a dreary December morning! It was surreal. It took a month or thereabouts for just the idea to settle and for the butterflies to stop fluttering, each time I unlocked the shutters, in the morning.
Gradually, I began to look forward to the joy of every new day.
The high point came when a flustered gent walked into the store and introduced himself. “I’m Anjali’s husband … she buys all her books from you. It’s her birthday tomorrow and I haven’t the foggiest idea what she’s read and what she would like to read. Could you help out?” He wasn’t the only one … wives came looking for gifts for husbands, children for parents, parents for their children: and they would unquestioningly accept whatever I suggested!
The Reader stayed with me for a little over three years. That’s not quite correct: for, The Reader will always be with me. But, I did recognise the shift in reading habits and buying patterns, fairly early and had set myself a deadline at which point of time I would need to take a decision on the economic viability of the business.
The Corporate Manager in me did have an eye open. It was heart breaking to acknowledge that business was not growing and I wasn’t prepared to go electronic.
What The Reader gave to me in three years, the corporate world could not in thirty.
S D Verma
image from Paz & Associates, experts on How to Open a Bookshop