If you buy books as often as I do, you don’t need me to tell you about the heady feeling of browsing titles while walking among the shelves at your favourite book shop. But we also go to online book shops and have books delivered home — a process that seems to have little or no magic in it.
A few days ago, I was in a book shop and overheard a customer telling the man at the counter that she could get the same books cheaper on Flipkart. In reply, the store keeper could only say (somewhat defensively) that Flipkart takes books from them. I am not sure how, from the customer’s point of view, that helps anything. She gets cheap books from Flipkart. End of story. Why would she care where Flipkart gets their books from?
Another thing happened, more or less related to the above, some time ago. A friend complained about how Flipkart was destroying the small book shop culture. People who, like you and me, are suckers for the musty smell of old yellowing pages, no longer throng to those sacred little places. They just go for the ‘cash-on-delivery’ option on Flipkart.
I love book shops. But I will not be too quick to fault Flipkart for their alleged demise. My mother recently found herself unable to locate a certain book. A person in her position finds herself faced with two choices. Go scour every book shop in the known universe and find the book you want; or simply type in some keywords into a searchable database and find the book (plus have it delivered to your doorstep). It’s really not a choice. Anyone would go the latter way.
I think pitting book shops against online outlets like Flipkart is missing the point. The two are not in the same line of business.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to book stores for books. I go to book stores for the experience of being among books. Flipkart is awesome, but there isn’t much to the experience apart from ease of use and comfort. We go to book shops when we don’t know what we want to read — we go there to contemplate and make up our minds. We log on to Flipkart when we know exactly which book we want to read.
The book shop culture might seem to be dying when we compare it with online book-buying culture. But see them as distinctly different environments suited for very different needs and the problem seems to change. Book shops will survive, but not as sellers of books. Their survival will depend on them turning into places that sell the reading experience, not entirely unlike a library.