|Jai Kadiri = The mascot of Oxford Bookstore|
Bookstores are the changing the way they sell their wares to a more culturally-aware audience around the world — which is getting younger by the year, says Priti Paul, the creator of the new Oxford Bookstore in India – which has completed in 100 years - and the director of the Apeejay Group which built the bookstore in Kolkata in the first decade of the last century.
“It is important that people are surrounded by books, but in a different way. Bookstores are no longer large warehouses. They must give you a chance to explore and to experience the knowledge that you have acquired. Oxford is my representative bookstore that gives me a chance to manage both my business and home from the store,” Paul told this writer in an interview in the national capital.
Paul’s son “Jai” – a perky pre-schooler — is the mascot of her bookstore. He lends the sprawling store with its sought-after “cha-bar” – a tea and snack café for browsers and buyers- the direction bookstores have taken in India in the last decade. “I am home for just four hours a day. This is how I deal with the child,” Priti said, pointing to the store that spends much energy to cater to the needs young readers — children — that fastest growing segment of bookworms and publishing in India. The store has a playpen and a large children’s book section which allows young readers’ – even toddlers — to read in the pen. “Jai has fun here. He likes listening to stories from the books he selects, enjoys the acts of touching, feeling and discovering books,” Priti said. It makes reading a holistic experience of the senses, especially at the café that doles out British style fare and beverages based around tea- the staple brew of the country’s intelligentsia.
Tea and the act of reading are indelibly tied in the popular mindscape in the post-Independence decades of nation building when the coffee shops and the tea vends across the countries were the hubs of literary debates and readers’ interfaces. Priti Paul has used this “inter-relative social-psychology” between tea and books in her store create a new ecology of reading.
“We are human beings after all. We all need our senses to be activated — I think my child is experiencing books in a novel manner and redefining his reading habits,“ the creator of Oxford Bookstore said. Children are one of Priti’s important audiences. “Parents have to inculcate reading habits in children. When I was young, I used to visit the Oxford Bookstore and the Seagull on weekends,” Priti recalled. The arrival of Time and Newsweek were cause for family feud in the Paul home. “The family would fight as to who would read it first,” Priti said about her own rites of passage into the planet of books.
The creator of the Oxford Bookstore was born in Kolkata to a large supporting family where her childhood was filled with books. She went to Boston to study architecture and economics at MIT - as education was considered important in her family. Two events changed the course of her life. Her brother Anand was killed in a car accident and her father was gunned down by the Ulfa rebels in northeastern India in the spring of 1990- the year she graduated.
The tragedies pushed in the family business ring. After managing the family interests in shipping and real estate, Priti spotlighted on the Oxford Bookstore — an iconic bookstore that the family set up 100 years ago. “I wanted to redo it. It was part of the social, emotional and cultural fabric of the city- as well as my life,” Priti said. She wanted to take the bookstore to other cities as a socio-economic project to meet the cultural needs of a country, whose knowledge sector was witnessing a phenomenal growth. She brought the bookstore to New Delhi and Morocco – her husband’s home turf.
In New Delhi, the bookstore serves multiple ends in the capital’s costliest business hub, Connaught Place. It draws the young upwardly mobile crowd who like to hang out at the “cha bar”, the smart shopper and the odd visitor who are the drawn by the history of the 100-year-old bookstore.
Priti compares the book buying trends in east and the west with the example of buyers at her store. “Indians like to be guided around stores and apprised of the importance of the collectibles unlike the western buyers who like to be left alone. But if books become mandatory on the daily shopping list of buyers in India like in the west, it would be hugely rewarding. People in India, however, still prefer the cosy comfort of a niche bookstore than the large warehouse provision stores in the west, which sell books together with household essentials and consumer goods,” Priti said.
Books have moved out of the confines of the fine print, Priti said. “Reading is a holistic experience. In our Calcutta (Kolkata) bookstore, 25 per cent of the sales are from the stationary, eco-friendly products and tea connected to popular literature, history and culture. But we are very careful about the kind of products to be sold,” she said. Merchandise adds to the experience of selling books — generating a holistic awareness about the culture of good reading and literary recall. In the Delhi bookstore, 30 per cent of the books sold are children’s titles and non-fiction books.
“The genres doing well are religion and new age books. It is difficult to make brisk business in New Delhi – not just because of the cut-throat business environment but because of the large book retail stores across the city and the airport vends. We are trying to deepen our own book lists to remain in the feay,” Priti said. The bookstore has powerful sections on gender and translation that generates “huge sales”.
Oxford has to constantly redefine sensitivities to keep itself alive to the requirements of the new generation of readers with a wide range of outreach initiatives and campaigns like readings, mini book fests, releases — and vigorous use of the social media.
“In the run-up to the election, we went out to elicit responses from every politician— their ideology, comment and anything connected to the political space — and compiled them to benefit the readers,” Priti said.
Over the years, Priti has carried her bookstore into the realm of global cultural diplomacy to foster understanding and exchanges. The Oxford bookstore is preparing to launch a permanent French book section at the French Embassy.
“The French Embassy has a long history and in the last 100 years, an amazing shift in French outlook to India has opened the door for greater cultural osmosis. India is interested in the world as well,” Priti pointed out. The bookstore offers a window to France with a selection of children’s books and as well as books on ideas that India wants to showcase about France. Translation is the medium of understanding.
A Polish book section that the bookstore set up an exhibition centre sold out three months ago. Poland is considering a permanent book section with Oxford in the near future. “The German Book Office approached us for an event in September. It was a big Hindi translation,” Priti said.
Books in the age of soft diplomacy have an important role in the exchange of bilateral ideas and peaceful relationships to paper over thorns in ties between nations, especially in the south Asian region, Priti pointed out. The Prime Minister of Mauritius, who was in India, for the swearing in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014 wants Oxford to host a festival of literature in Mauritius.
The unprecedented growth in Indian publishing in English has much to do with bookstores playing the role of cultural catalysts to consolidate new cooperation blocs, Priti said.
Pointing to trends in Indian writing in English, Priti said unlike two decades ago, English writers are finding it easy to publish books because of the surfeit of publishers around. Writers now know how to promote themselves and the relationship between the writers, publishers and readers have more clarity, she said.
“Literature is the prism to view the changes around us,” Priti said summing the relevance of her bookstore in the last 100