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Used books find more ‘net’ worth

Published : Dec 13, 2015, 10:51 pm IST
Updated : Dec 13, 2015, 10:51 pm IST

If you were to walk up to a second-hand bookkeeper on the streets of Mumbai and ask for DH Lawrence, the response you’re most likely to meet is this — “Rainbow or Women in Love ” Bookstall owners on t

Second handbook stalls in Matunga Circle  . (Photo: Sripad Naik)
 Second handbook stalls in Matunga Circle . (Photo: Sripad Naik)

If you were to walk up to a second-hand bookkeeper on the streets of Mumbai and ask for DH Lawrence, the response you’re most likely to meet is this — “Rainbow or Women in Love ” Bookstall owners on the sidewalks of the city are no strangers to the names in classic literature — or those in recent pop culture for that matter. Matunga Circle is one and so is SoBo’s Flora Fountain. Along with heaps of tomes, obscure titles and academic volumes, such conversations and ‘treasure hunts’ form half the fun and charm of Mumbai’s second hand books culture; the rest comes from haggling and striking profitable bargains — a guilty pleasure all Indians are given to.

But that charm seems to be slowly but surely waning as these ‘gold-mines’ that adorn a select few sidewalks in the city are now facing a new challenge from competition that is growing big with each step. And it is not from stalls set up in other hubs, circles or fountains, but from the ever-expanding world of Internet. Several players, new and old have popped up in the digital world, giving the second-hand books market, which is reportedly worth `500 crores, an online presence. While websites such as Kitaabi.com and secondhandbooksindia.com may not offer the same fun of hunting and haggling, they are definitely establishing their presence with competitive pricing and search-enabled catalogues while providing a market that is much more organised than their brick and mortar counterparts.

“It is a huge, but disorganised market,” says Sharad Churamani, the founder of SecondhandbooksIndia.com. Telling us about the scope it offers, he says, “There is a huge market, but there is also a huge discrepancy in terms of quality. Unlike in publishing, there is no cataloguing, inventory management or logistics. But the demand certainly is present.”

Like any other market, this too has its own advantages and disadvantages, says Vir Bhan Saini of Kitaabi.com. The Mumbai based startup, run by young pass outs and students has big visions and has already started profiting. “Our idea was to make books cheaper at a hyper-local scale. The advantage of being online is that it lends a social aspect to the market. We want to consolidate our customer base and bring the entire stock of second books under one catalogue. So right now the important thing is to catalogue and stockpile our stocks,” says Vir.

And although the online platforms are setting high sales records, the road-side stalls still seem to be having no plans of shutting shop.

Where do the books come from

Whether it is online or roadside stalls, the source for these books is still the same, contend people in both sides of the trade. And contrary to popular belief, it is not the scrap-dealers alone. While initially reticent as to his source, Ramesh, who has a stall at Matunga Circle informs, “There are multiple sources. We have deals and partnerships with a number of dealers across the city who let us know when a new title surfaces in the market.

But another major source is people selling to us directly. There are many who don’t want to sell their books for weight to a scrap dealer and they make a decent profit of selling to us.” Adding more on this point, Dilip says, “For our regular customers, our stalls are almost like a mini lending library. They buy a book and sell it back to us at a marginally lower price and the stock keeps circulating.” But as for the newer books, the source, claims Dilip are the publishers themselves. “There are dealers with whom we have contact who get unsold stocks in bulk from the publishers themselves. There are some who give them away on weight too. The trick is that us having a particular title is actually good for the visibility of the book as well which is why publishers sell to us as well. In normal bookstores, new books have limited shelf life, but here it is as long as till the book is sold so it lasts longer in public memory.”

Customers buying books online act as sources for books for the online portals, adds Vir. “We are planning on creating community set ups for our customers through which whoever wants to sell their books can do so directly to us online. While we are looking at crowd sourcing, a major part of our plan includes these already established stalls as well. We want to use their expertise in sourcing of books. We have already made deals with several established players such Victoria Bookstore in Mahim, Santosh Bookstore in Vile Parle and Arvind Bookstore in Flora Fountain,” says Vir.

The biggest challenge facing these new players is not sourcing books, but indeed cataloguing them. Says Sharad, “Logistics is a big part of online trade as the books have to be delivered to the customer. But another big part is inventory management. I have over 20,000-30,000 books in my stockpile and I have catalogued and classified them all to make it more organised. Still, without accompanying records, it is very tough to individually categorise these books according to editions and publishing houses etc. So the cataloguing part only involves titles. But that itself is a big step, considering people don’t have to look through heaps and heaps of books to find what they are looking for and most often people aren’t very particular about the editions when it comes to second hand books.” Old is not necessarily gold

Contrary to how the antique market works in all other segments, in the second hand books space, older or rarer books aren’t always appreciated, as they should be. Bemoaning the lack of customer awareness as the reason behind this, Sharad adds, “It needs a lot of knowledge on the part of the buyer to know which edition is special and which translation is rare. And since we buy it in bulk and have such big inventories we can’t do it ourselves either. So there have been several times when I have sold 30-40 year-old books for a mere `100. The margin usually is only 40-45% of MRP on older books.” However, this is not the case for all books, he adds. “There is however, a vibrant antique market in the comics segment and in some selected titles. For example, there are a lot of collectors these days. Some people particularly look for all editions of Tin-Tin or Indrajal comics. What is also valued are titles in books such as PG Wodehouse’ works, which sell really well. People want to have a Gallahad or Jeeves collectio n and second hand portals are their preferred destinations.”

While not present is mainstream, there are many who do deal in antiquarian books. An example would be the Literati Café and Bookstore, which has an online portal with a separate segment an exhaustive catalogue for antiquarian books. “We do a lot of research into what book has what value. And there are special editions and first editions that do go for thousands of rupees.” Another problem apart from the research is preservation and restoration, adds Santosh. “Some of these are very old and brittle, but we keep them in glass cupboards, and take as good care of them as possible,” he adds.

Masters of the roadside books trade While it may seem to their online counterparts that there is a lack of an organised set up, the roadside stall owners have their own model of cataloguing and inventory management. The difference is, it is all in their heads. Sitting at his stall side, talking politics, Uday Varman, who manages a popular book store in Matunga circle is a fine example of the knowledge of books that these experts possess.

From John Keats to T.S. Eliot, nobody who comes scouting for books to his store has to do the back-breaking work of digging out titles from the book heaps. For Uday knows exactly which nook to look in for which obscure classic. Taking a dig at the Prime Minister for quoting Keats in a recent event, Uday says, “I am sure he could not have done so in front of a learned crowd. What does he know ” he asks, confident in his knowledge of the English poet. “I have been managing this stall since the 80s and I still have most of the books I had then, especially the classics. The new stock comes and goes, but these books remain,” he adds.

However, while demand for the cheaper alternatives for books have certainly gone up, the demographic and readership has changed a lot says Dilip, who has been running his Dilip Bookstore in Flora Fountain for the better part of 20 years.

“A stark change I have noticed is in the interest in classics. There were times when classics sold the highest and our customers, who were regulars used to come asking for specific editions and specific translations of obscure titles. Now it is mostly just students browsing and taking whatever catches their eye. And most usually it is Chetan Bhagat or the like.” While it may be good news for Bhagat and his generation of authors, it is not for these stall-owners as for them, the newer the book the lower the margin.