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Friday, Oct 07, 2022

Ajay Jain, founder of Kunzum café and chain of books, on promoting readership in India — the old fashioned way

From running a café to opening bookstores in Delhi, the 52-year-old entrepreneur on how to bring reading of books in vogue again.

ajay jain, kunzum cafe, kunzum cafe delhi“What we wanted was to create an experience so that readers want to come in. Otherwise they can just buy books online,” says Ajay Jain. (Photo: Jis James)

Here’s the scene: it’s a rainy morning and you are standing in the middle of Jor Bagh, still drenched from the recent downpour. Distant from the din of nearby markets and the traffic on the main road, all around you, lavish residential apartments jostle for space. It’s cool and quiet. Birds chirp. It’s soo cozy and you are still so soaked that the best thing in the world right now would be a book in your hand, a sofa under your rear, and a sip of coffee to warm you up.

There is a way.

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Walk past the Indira Paryavaran Bhawan to apartment 182. Go down the winding staircase to enter an expansive marble-floored room covered wall-to-wall with books (both collector’s editions and mass markets, relax). The lounging sofas, the cushioned stools, the tables circled by austere wooden chairs all look tempting. There are bookmarks, gift vouchers and art supplies on shelves everywhere, and the space is primed for the best reading session of your life.

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“What we wanted was to create an experience so that readers want to come in. Otherwise, they can just buy books online,” says Ajay Jain, founder of the Kunzum bookshops, a chain with five outlets in Delhi. The stores are in their early days — the first one came up in March this year — but have already hosted events with celebrities such as International Booker winner Geetanjali Shree and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor. Jain started these stores to create a community of book-lovers, a way for readers and writers to unite and interact that promotes readership.

kunzum cafe, kunzum cafe books, kunzum cafe jor bagh There are bookmarks, gift vouchers and art supplies on shelves everywhere, and the space is primed for the best reading session of your life. (Photo: Ajay Jain)

Kunzum and Jain are, of course, not unfamiliar names in south Delhi. Jain’s Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas, so named after a chance visit to the breathtaking Kunzum Pass in Himachal Pradesh, has been a popular art gallery-cum-library-cum-hub for music gigs, book launches, art exhibitions, and anyone who wanted to bond over art and a cup of complementary coffee. After a successful decade-long run, the pandemic in 2020 hit business hard. “The Hauz Khas outlet had to close down. But when things opened up, I wondered whether I should continue, because I too had changed as a person,” says Jain. He had been toying with the idea of selling books for a while but knew that if he were to open a bookstore, he would want to own an entire chain. “I wanted to build scale because I wanted to expand a culture of readership,” says Jain, adding that it’s his sole ambition to be in a business that is ostensibly treading rough waters.

So, the Hauz Khas outlet was rebranded to a full-fledged bookstore, and soon, Kunzum had four other outlets across Delhi — in Vasant Vihar, Gurgaon, Jor Bagh and Greater Kailash 2. “But even if we become a national chain someday, I don’t want readers to feel like they are entering the store of a soulless corporation,” says Jain. That is why the wide open spaces, the physical feel of being around books, is integral to Kunzum. Jain wants his stores to stand on the pillars of curation (with a team working constantly to put books on shelves that readers may not get recommended “through an Amazon algorithm”) and building a community that comes together for events at the stores. “People ask me why we don’t stream events if we have such famous authors coming in. I reply, nothing doing,” says Jain. “I want you to come to our stores and experience the authors in a physical space, because chances are you would hear them say the same thing on YouTube anyway.”

kunzum cafe, kunzum cafe gurgaon, book reading delhi The Hauz Khas outlet was rebranded to a full-fledged bookstore, and soon, Kunzum had four other outlets across Delhi — in Vasant Vihar, Gurgaon, Jor Bagh and Greater Kailash 2. (Photo: Ajay Jain)

He demands customers coming to Kunzum to “un-tech” themselves — which is why he has removed free WiFi from all his outlets. Part of ensuring the focus remains on books is by “keeping the bloat out”: Jain doesn’t want to sell stationery supplies, teddy bears, muffins or sandwiches through his bookstores to subsidise costs through subsidiary sales. “The conventional way of sitting behind the cash register, waiting for customers to come in, pick up a book and go away, that’s not going to work. I read somewhere that bookshops don’t fail; bookshops run by lazy booksellers fail. If you don’t make the extra effort at building a community, customers will go elsewhere. Make a song and dance about reading, that’s how bookselling could thrive,” he says.

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Bookshops, however, are a stepping stone to further ambitions. Jain hopes to enter the publishing domain someday. “Once Kunzum is profitable, we want to start investing in better books, whether it means coming out with fellowships, scholarships, or awards. A country like India has so many people who can write great books, but they’re not writing them. They’re sitting on great stuff, but if there aren’t enough sales, there’s no point writing them, right? We are trying to do our best to contribute to this ecosystem,” he says, adding that the book industry could do with more players to shake things up. “We need to get people to start talking about books the same way they talk about Netflix and other forms of entertainment,” he says.

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First published on: 10-08-2022 at 11:22:23 am
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