Six days after it opened, three months ago, I happened by the Spell & Bound Bookshop & Café in SDA Market, a prosperous corner of South Delhi. The market has restaurants and coffee places and one of the better-stocked thekas in the city. Primed by years of Harry Potter products, my eye was instantly captured by Spell & Bound’s forest-green and olde-worlde facade, with its promise of cosiness and warm bookery.
It was nice inside, too. One enters the middle level, which is stocked with new titles and bits of backlist — the books that have lasted. Down a spiral staircase is a broad basement with children’s books, coffee-table books, poetry, travel titles and so on. In no case, when I first went, was any genre yet well-stocked enough to be satisfying.
Up the staircase is a narrow mezzanine like the dining car of a small train. This (along with a table or two on the verandah outside the shop) is the café area, where one can buy fairly inexpensive rolls and soft drinks. Food is by The Kathi and coffee by Depaul’s, both of which have several outlets in Delhi.
All this was ready on the sixth day.
About three weeks ago I went back there to meet Kanika Kapoor, one of the two young founders. The place looked more lived-in, and she told me that it was being frequented by students from IIT Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University, both close by. IIT’s English debating club had adopted Spell & Bound’s basement, she said, as one of its debate venues. In the evening someone with a guitar was liable to settle on the verandah to strum. The shop was getting repeat customers and had even started home delivery. Kapoor spoke of planning a magnetic swipe card to help track the interest areas of their customers. She said 20-25 per cent of their human traffic came to them via Facebook — because they had not bothered with a PR agency and press coverage.
The collection had improved. There was a good set of children’s books, some of them otherwise not often seen on Indian shop shelves, including poetry for children. Many were American titles. The range of books for adults, while still not very good, had grown deeper and better.
To me this looked like a heartening example of how a new bookshop could make space for itself in a market that is not kind to small retailers. The owners had chosen to be general-interest, yet developed a few focuses, and were positioning themselves as “lifestyle”.
Two days ago I spoke with Aseem Vadehra, Kapoor’s business partner and co-owner. He told me that as of a month ago, no more than two months after it opened, Spell & Bound is on its way to becoming a chain. Kapoor and Vadehra have joined with Satyam Cineplexes to put books booths in multiplex lobbies. Popcorn, cola, books! The first booth is at the Nehru Place cineplex; a second is in the works; more are expected.
“Chainification” is spreading through the bookselling business in India. The big chains, like Landmark, Crossword and Oxford Bookstore have been around for a while. What’s new is that even single-outlet, once old-fashioned bookshops are chainifying themselves. Look at Strand Book Stall of Mumbai, which has metastasised out of Fort, Mumbai, and spread onto IT campuses in Bangalore-Mysore. Look at Full Circle Books, and Bahrisons Book Shop. Both are now small chains whose owners have diverse interests in publishing. There is Om Book Shop. There is Roli Books, which has gone from a wily small publisher to two incipient chains: CMYK, for expensive art books, and Half-Price Bookstore, for discount books — of which just one is open but more planned.
It’s not the growth that’s surprising, but the pace, ambition, and willingness to think like a modern business. The romance is just about gone from the Indian books world, but — who’d have thought? — the business magic is flooding in.