|Picture: Pabitra Das, model: Sandip Dutt, location: Crossword
From Bill Clinton's My Life to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, Robin S. Sharma's The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari to the Official Guide for GMAT Review, Microwave Cooking Made Easy to You Can Win or even A Short History of Nearly Everything'
The titles at the tills are as myriad as can be and the book-lover's basket in town more eclectic than ever before.
The Calcuttan is not a couch potato. He is, in fact, traipsing through tomes at a faster clip, enjoying the better browsing comforts (read, wider aisles and passages, clear and detailed signage, ergonomic reading furniture, clean washrooms, value-added benefits such as returning option, exchange, free home delivery, gift wrapping and so on) and buying more.
The infrastructure spin-offs that come with the shift from unorganised to organised formats are being hailed by the city bookie (in the non-fixing sense of the term, of course). And that is showing up not just between the lines but in the bottomline. There is more, from cover to cover, to ensure that the book business at the new-age stores is growing at 12-18 per cent per annum, maintain members of the trade.
And the book habit starts early. 'Young parents keen to invest in their children's education and stimulate their minds are encouraging the reading habit. Besides, there's a growing educated middle class here with Calcutta getting more and more young professionals every day, particularly in the IT sector,' says Gautam Jatia, CEO of Emami Landmark.
Internationally, there has been an extended focus on education and learning, with people spending more and more on self-improvement, and the trend is reflected in city bookstores as well. 'Today's kids are in a competitive environment, which is driving them into bookstores as they seek to upgrade knowledge and skills to keep their noses ahead,' observes Rajiv Chowdhury, chief operating officer, E-Books World Pvt Ltd which steers Oxford Bookstore. Thus from Dale Carnegie to Stephen Covey to Norman Vincent Peale ' self-improvement books are a rage.
'Business at Oxford is still driven by serious readers, but more and more youngsters are dropping in these days. The number of BRCs (book request cards) is a most relevant dipstick to gauge the market mood, and we have recorded a 12 per cent growth over last year, which is very encouraging,' adds Chowdhury.
Fact and fiction
Unlike in the past when books were basically associated with a good ol' yarn, today fiction contributes to only 20-25 per cent of the total business (though Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has emerged as the biggest hit in recent rack times). Organised retail has stacked more depth, driving phenomenal growth in categories like travel, cookery, business and management, self-help, health and fitness. From culinary prowess to yoga, lifestyle trends to alternative healing remedies, titles are disappearing thick and fast, as Calcutta opens its mind to these 'new sections'.
Again, there's the feel-good factor. Shopping today is more entertainment than need, and books are no exception. 'Modern-day bookstores are more of leisure haunts, where the family wants to spend time. In retail, the concept of the watch and the wallet applies. Where the customer spends time, he/she is bound to spend money. So, the challenge for us is to create an experience that pulls in people. Once they are in, the product mix is strong enough to convert walk-ins to sales,' stresses Sidharth Pansari of Crossword, the newest entrant on Elgin Road.
Avid readers with the spending power have at least 20-25 per cent unread books in their collection and they still tend to buy more books, say retailers. Cashing in on the tempo, bookstores, through various in-house events, are seeking to play a greater role of a cultural/social forum where people meet and interact, exchange views and ideas and voice their concerns.
The buoyancy in the market also has a lot to do with the influx of NRI traffic during this time of the year. With most foreign publishers offering a special price for India ' normally only 30 per cent of the cover price ' the NRI Bengali, in town for the festive season, tends to buy books in bulk. A lady from California recently bought Tintin and Asterix comics worth more than Rs 10,000 from Landmark, asking other Asterix titles to be couriered once back in stock.
Global and local
Both the small and the big screens play a big role in the movement of children's books. For instance, sales of Noddy, Pokemon and Tintin would go up when these are on TV and Pottermania peaks when Harry and Hermione come to a nearby theatre.
All impact events (from 9/11 to the Olympics) and global personalities (Saddam Hussein to David Beckham) drive book biz in town too, with Calcutta's 'abiding interest in and remarkable awareness of' international affairs.
'People had prophesied that with the advent of computers and television, interest in books would wane. While it seemed to have happened momentarily, books are very much back in favour. Despite one more major outlet (Crossword) setting up shop in town, traffic has swelled in all the bookstores, reflected in the growth in business,' says Landmark's Jatia.
Media impact on book retail in the city has been huge. 'Just look at the hype that preceded Bill Clinton's autobiography or Harry Potter's latest adventure. Long before the books were launched, nearly 5,000 copies were already ordered/booked,' Pansari points out.
With the organised market maturing by the book ' and College Street all but confined to a textbook slot ' the modern-day stores in town are moving towards the right product mix. At Crossword, 50 per cent of the revenue comes from non-book items such as music, movies, CD-ROMs, toys and stationery, while the cafeteria adds to the family destination feel. At Landmark, too, while books remain the core competence, the international music section has struck quite a chord.
Something for everyone is the new rule in the book business and Calcutta is keen to read on.