As bookstores close down, Bangalore's Blossom offers hope

It is ultimately the ability to nurture a loyal clientele that will delay, if not halt, the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

 |  Miscellany  |  5-minute read |   25-10-2016
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It occupies three floors on Church Street, a bustling avenue just behind MG Road, the main artery of Bangalore’s Central Business District. I have been visiting Blossom, the bookstore and a city institution, since I moved to Bangalore two years ago. My visits normally fall on Sundays, and in spite of its cramped interiors, I have always found there a crowd, shoving and jostling as they grab the latest mystery or a dog-eared copy of an old classic.

Up until recently, every time I visited Blossom, I felt a pang of fear. I had heard of so many bookstores, in other cities and indeed on this very street, disappear, the latest victim being the Variety Book House at the end of the road that lovingly sold everything from Financial Times to New Yorker. In the age of Amazon, Blossom, with its three floors in prime location, could not last, I told myself.

In early October, Blossom opened a second bookstore on Church Street, spread over a whopping 8000 square feet on the third floor of a building that is a stone’s throw from the first outlet.

The news was broken in the Sunday ET of October 9, and when I reached the new store the same day, I found the staff clutching copies of the paper, gawking with a mix of admiration and diffidence. Even as the store was still being set up, there were customers already browsing the shelves, in this massive space that allows more than enough breathing space.

The ET story tells you how Blossom became an exception in the vanishing world of brick-and-mortar stores. Sales touch Rs 45 lakh every month, the story reveals, with profits 15 per cent of that number. No wonder the proprietor Mayi Gowda had enough dope to start another outlet.

But Blossom has benefitted primarily from the largesse of the Bangalore book-reading crowd, who, be it celebs like Anjum Hasan or Ramachandra Guha, or common folk like the IT fraternity, have patronised it diligently. It helps that prices are discounted to match Amazon’s and the cache is huge, with exciting second-hand finds that you may not locate elsewhere.

Apart from books, the new store will also sell merchandise and stationery, in a bid to recoup costs via products that offer better margins than books. But the very fact that Blossom has been able to do this – to find a space this big and to develop it as a bookstore that offers a more pleasing experience to the customer than its forbear across the street – is cause for cheer.

The first Blossom opened in 2002, and it is a testimony to how quickly the internet has disrupted the books business — as it has many others — that the era of brick-and-mortar bookstores is already spoken of in the past tense.

Their patrons, meanwhile, will vouch that they offer something that no online outlet can match – a chance, precious for the book lover, to be surrounded by numerous books and discover something of value in the haystack.

As I walked between the new Blossom’s high shelves packed to the rafters with every conceivable genre, I felt a physical sense of security, as though I were safe from some unspoken anxiety in the midst of so much tangible learning.

bookstorebd_102516030908.jpg The new millennium brought mostly bad news for the likes of Borders and Barnes & Noble, as they bled money and lost customers to Amazon. (Photo: Reuters)

Young people, in groups of two or three, giggled as they detected what they had been looking for. An old gentleman browsed gravely at a book in Kannada. A couple, basking in the intimacy of the place, failed valiantly to focus on the books.

To be sure, such ruminations can seem precious when nobody has any ideas on how to save physical bookstores. While Blossom aims to match Amazon’s prices, the buying choice is significantly better online.

During my trip, the Blossom staff informed me that they did not have a copy of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, one of the most accomplished debuts of this year. I looked around for titles on this year’s Booker shortlist, like Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, but did not see any. Both Greenwell’s book and the Booker shortlist in its entirety can be purchased on Amazon.

And yet, there are glimmers of hope.

For a long time, the fight on the retail side of the publishing world was between independent and chain bookstores, and it was reasonably assumed that the single store would be crushed under the might of its corporate rival. Amazon changed all that. The new millennium brought mostly bad news for the likes of Borders and Barnes & Noble, as they bled money and lost customers to Amazon.

Meanwhile, independent bookstores witnessed a quiet resurgence, bolstered in part by a general trend towards nurturing local businesses and in part by the personal connect missing from chain stores.

From the history-dripping Shakespeare & Co in Paris to the newish Book Culture on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the independent bookstore brought personality and panache to an otherwise grim retail horizon. Bookstores like the LGBT-themed Vrolijk in Amsterdam also act as sites of community meetings and activism.

It is ultimately this ability to nurture a loyal clientele that will delay, if not halt, the demise of the bookstore. Blossom has done this remarkably well, being all things to all people. The store’s haphazard compiling of material – an Amitav Ghosh, say, can be found next to a William Dalrymple – is often touted as an attraction by patrons who look upon their visits as treasure hunts that they can launch into at a time of their choosing, since the best treats are often hidden from plain sight.

I left Blossom’s new outlet with a copy of Birthday Stories, a collection compiled by Haruki Murakami. I rarely buy anthologies due to their uneven nature, but absent any other purchase, I decided to indulge myself.

It would have seemed niggardly to return empty-handed from a store that is fighting the good fight, with more than a little help from Bangaloreans. The future of the brick-and-mortar store may be in jeopardy, but for now, Blossom, flush with funds and manned by the politest staff you will come across in a retail outlet, stands tall.

Also read: Reading is a dying art. But there's always one more book to devour


Vikram Johri Vikram Johri @vikramjohri

I write for a living. Sometimes the words comfort the heart too.

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