A Literary Oasis!

- Kunzum Bookstore Redefines the Book Retail Experience

Despite the growth of online book sales, physical bookstores continue to hold a special place in the hearts of Indian readers. These brick-and-mortar bookstores are not merely a haven for book lovers, but a sanctuary where stories come alive and imaginations run wild. Smita Dwivedi in a candid conversation with Ajay Jain, founder of Kunzum bookstores, discovers new trends, growth, choices and developments in the book retail segment.

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India, a land steeped in rich literary traditions and a diverse cultural heritage, has always had a profound relationship with books. The book business in India has witnessed significant growth and transformation over the years, adapting to the changing needs and preferences of readers. Physical bookstores are flourishing despite online book sales. One such chain of bookstores is Kunzum Bookstores, run by Ajay Jain, who is an author, photographer and traveller. He has written eleven (at last count) print books and over fifty e-books. He also founded the popular Kunzum Travel Café in 2010 as a hub for travellers – but it evolved into a space for all forms of creativity including films, poetry, writing, art, theatre, music, photography and more.

At present, they are operational at five locations in Delhi NCR: DT Mega Mall, Gurgaon; Vasant Vihar (Basant Lok) in South Delhi; Hauz Khas Village – South Delhi; the lounge in Jorbagh and Greater Kailash II – South Delhi. The last mentioned outlet is their flagship store across four floors: a general bookshop on the first, the world’s only exclusive Penguin store on the second and theatres for audience sizes of upto 150 each on the third and fourth. The theatres have been designed to host not just literary events but all kinds of cultural, art, music and speaking events too.

Bookstores like Kunzum provide an immersive and sensory experience that cannot be replicated in the digital realm. They offer a space for readers to browse through shelves, discover hidden gems, engage in literary conversations, and attend author events, fostering a sense of community among book lovers. With its eclectic collection of books and cosy ambiance, these bookstores have become a beloved destination for bibliophiles seeking respite from the chaos of the outside world.

Talking about trends and market growth…

AABP: How have you observed the reading habits of customers evolving over the past few years?

Ajay: The thinnest silver lining to the pandemic has been a general change of perspective about a lot of things; it is reflected in our preferences for careers, personal relationships, cinema, arts, travel, money matters – and reading too. Overall, sales of books have gone up globally and in India too. People from all walks of life and ages are taking to reading. They are willing to experiment, and are also picking books that may not be topping the popularity charts.

AABP: What emerging book genres or themes are gaining popularity among buyers?

Ajay: While being faithful to their habits, there is a marked preference for more – special edition classics, graphic novels, translated works and more. The Indian market has always been skewed towards non-fiction, but readers buck the trend and have a stronger leaning towards fiction. Books that are linked to movies and television shows are doing better than ever before. And customers are willing to pay extra for relatively expensive editions like Dune.

At Kunzum, we have seen a strong uptake for our curated sections like LGBTQIA+, gender, YA fiction, a thriller by women and memoirs. And people don’t seem to have enough of self-help books!

AABP: How has the rise of e-books and digital reading impacted your business?

Ajay: Electronic and audiobooks may be perceived to be highly popular but, like many things tech, the reality does not match the news they make. Even in tech-obsessed countries like the USA, over 80 per cent of all books sold are printed ones. The share is even higher in India.

These books have not had any noticeable impact on our business. We also believe that most customers of electronic books may not pick printed books anyway – we thus have our market segment that we cater to and these are the ones not swayed by any new formats of books.

AABP: Can you share any insights into the impact of social media and online communities on book sales?

Ajay: Communities on social media and bookstagrammers are actually a blessing for the books business. Their posts and conversations arouse interest and curiosity about books – not only do they draw non-readers in, but help readers discover stuff they were not looking for. And thus boost sales.

Social media allows people to know about the latest releases and about backlists too. They also get to know authors and publishers better, and a sense of bonding prompts further purchases.

We also have celebrities who are leveraging digital platforms to promote reading or to become star authors themselves. Sonali Bendre runs a popular book club. The likes of Ankur Warikoo, Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Pattnaik have become de facto author enterprises through their online engagements.

Knowing more about buyers’ choices…

AABP: What are some recent bestsellers that have surprised you in terms of their popularity?

Ajay: I am surprised at the continued popularity of titles like Atomic Habits and Ikigai; they are worthy reads but many other titles deserve top billing but can’t seem to breakthrough. It is also interesting that the writings of Gaur Gopal Das are among bestsellers, and he seems to have inspired other writers to don similar robes.

AABP: How do you determine which books to stock based on customer preferences?

Ajay: We have invested in a team of professional curators to decide what to stock. We have a multi-pronged approach to this. At one level, we play to the galleries – offer titles that are favourites and likely to sell because of their general popularity. And then we focus on the value-add. We research for titles and collections that may be suffering because of poor marketing but are excellent reads otherwise. We highlight these in the store and delight customers when they discover stuff they did not know existed. It is the latter that marks us differently.

AABP: Are there any notable trends in the formats buyers are choosing, such as hardcover, paperback, e-books or audiobooks?

Ajay: Most books come in paperback so they naturally sell more. But customers are not deterred by the cost of titles which are available in hardcover – including special editions – if they are the ones they want to read. Most of our customers are clear that they do not read e-books and audiobooks.

AABP: Do you have any memorable stories of customers who found unexpected treasures in your bookstore?

Ajay: A day does not pass when we do not have customers sharing their delight at discovering titles they consider treasures. While credit goes to our curation team for identifying and stocking such titles, the layout of our stores makes it much easier for customers to find such stuff. The other day author Vivaan Shah, son of noted actors Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, was overjoyed to find books for his father that he had not seen anywhere else. Likewise with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, a senior editor in the publishing world, who was thrilled to find the collected works of Agha Shahid Ali.

A young individual visited our store to pick a list of titles he had prepared but was surprised to find the entire Assassins Creed collection. For him, it was an unexpected piece of luck and he picked the lot without any hesitation.

Tickling funny bones!

AABP: If you were a book character, which one would you be and why?

Ajay: Every good book has a character that makes one want to be that, so it’s a tough one. Perhaps Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the protagonist in A Gentleman in Moscow. Because of his overall personality: the statesman like conduct, intelligence, tough mind with a soft heart and his ability to take his misfortune in his stride and still make his life matter. To others more than to himself.

AABP: Could you recommend a book that made you laugh out loud or had an unexpected twist?

Ajay: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman was a laugh riot, with the proverbial twist in the tale to make for a memorable ending. As the blurb (correctly) reads: a poignant comedy about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.

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