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STARMARK GOES SOUTH & ONLINE

Bookstores are going under, what with online retailers and their fat discounts, and e-books and their convenience. That seems to be a common cry from much of the English-reading world. So, when a Calcutta-based bookstore chain opened shop in Chennai recently, we were curious. And happy. But still curious.

Gautam Jatia, the CEO of Starmark, the retail chain owned by the Emami Group, was happy to explain.

The Chennai store, spread over 15,000sq ft in Express Avenue Mall on Mount Road, houses around 50,000 titles. Non-fiction books are doing very well there, we are told.

“Yes, the book business is going through a difficult time. But some of what you hear is hype too. It’s not all gloom and doom,” laughed Jatia.

He firmly believes that the booklover is not satisfied with an electronic experience. “See, the delivery mechanism of books and music is different. With music, you will experience it with your headphones, but there’s a physical joy to possessing a book. And in any case, the discerning listener is back to buying CDs, he’s not satisfied with a compressed format like MP3.”

The problem, according to Jatia, is that bookstores are not stocking enough varieties of books. They are reducing shelf space and only keeping bestsellers.

“But when readers come to a bookstore, they are not looking only for bestsellers. They don’t find variety and that is what pushes them to online retailers,” Jatia concluded.

So curation of the collection is very important to keep a bookstore thriving, he feels.

But Starmark devotes huge space within its stores to merchandise too. Is that to offset the low margins from book sales?

Jatia disagreed. A book business is not necessarily a loss-making venture, he said, but admitted that even “a tea stall or a paan shop” might do better business than a bookstore. “The book business is also about passion. Books and bookstores are necessary for society.”

About the pens, stationery, gift items and toys at Starmark, he said that the outlets were “not just bookstores, they were a complete family shopping destination.”

“Book-buying is a leisure activity, not a necessity. So, when a buyer comes here, he’s here also for the ambience, the enjoyment, the shopping. The same person who buys a book will also buy a National Geographic magazine, a Cross pen and a nice notepad. So we stock all these related products. Why should I not have a share of that part of your wallet?”

Starmark has also taken baby steps into publishing, acquiring the English rights of nine Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay children’s novels and nine Sunil Gangopadhyay works to turn them into graphic novels. That apart, there are books, diaries and merchandise themed on Calcutta.

And despite the stress on improving the reader’s “bookstore experience” at its on-ground outlets, in August Starmark went online as well — www.starmark.in — with cash-on-delivery, free shipping and replacement guarantees.