March 8, 2021 12:44:52 am
Three months after a fire at Kitab Khana, the city bookstore is ready to reopen this week. Bookstore owner Amrita Somaiya speaks to The Indian Express about the fire, the reading habits of the city, and the effects of the pandemic.
Have you been able to assess the cause of and losses from the fire on December 9?
The fire began in the kitchen of the bookstore and spread. Fortunately, the fire brigade reached in six minutes and a lot of damage was avoided. We were grateful for the immediate assistance of the fire brigade and police. The building is a heritage structure, anything worse could have been devastating. In monetary terms, the loss was around Rs 2 crore with the books and furniture, part of the mezzanine, kitchen area, and we had to rehaul and refurnish the whole place. We are in the process of reordering and refilling the shelves to have the best collection when we reopen.
There was an outpouring of messages on social media from book lovers, especially since the city lost an iconic bookstore, Strand, in 2018, and other bookstores face an uncertain future. How easy was the decision to reopen Kitab Khana despite the losses?
Samir (husband and co-owner) and I look at the bookstore as a labour of love. It is our love for books, the love to create a community space, which led to Kitab Khana. The day of the fire, my father, who was infected with Covid-19, was deteriorating. The next day we stepped into the store and I received a call from the hospital asking if my father could be put on a ventilator. Samir and I said we would do whatever it takes, and gave a go-ahead for the ventilator. If I can give a similar analogy, we decided to get Kitab Khana going again. We told our staff that we have to reopen Kitab Khana with our 10th anniversary coming up in March. Unfortunately, my father did not make it, but Kitab Khana will live on. He is the architect of the store, he had done the interiors. So it is a resolve to keep his legacy going through the bookstore.
Can you tell us about the lockdown and its impact on the bookstore?
When the lockdown was announced, we decided to use our social media platform to keep people connected with storytelling sessions, book readings, book launches. We did conversations on books, panel discussions, quiz for children, recommendations on reading for relaxation, what can keep children occupied. We began delivery of books. Nothing could replace coming to a store, but we tried to keep the experience alive.
Can you tell us from the experiences of your team about the reading habits of the city’s book lovers?
What we have seen in the past 10 years is that people like to have a space to immerse themselves in. Our store does not have Wi-Fi. People want to step into the bookstore to take a break, escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, get a sense of warmth. It has become more than a shop.
You can walk into Kitab Khana and browse without being pressured into buying a book. We have a cross-section of customers. We endeavour to surprise them with unique genres of books, and they surprise us by asking for books that are not part of our collection.
In these times, when eulogies of bookstores are written often, what does it take to keep one open?
When people walk into a bookstore, they like that they are known, that someone knows what they bought last time, what they may like. People like that they can find a book of a genre they do not read but end up enjoying. I feel that the personal touch that a bookstore like Kitab Khana gives keeps it going.
Also, in this last year of the lockdown, we could not visit people, places, and had to lose the experience of the touch and feel of things. I think this will lead to a resurgence of bookstores. People are tired of looking at electronic screens and would prefer the tactile feel of a book, the smell of its pages. Even in this past decade, when we felt that the Kindle will replace physical books, it has not happened. People use the Kindle mostly while travelling, including my 21-year-old daughter, but otherwise prefer books. This gives me hope from the next generation as well. I also hope people will support local independent bookstores and read a lot.
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