On Books, People and Our Times – The Closing of TBH

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Beautiful stacks of books, all the way up to the ceiling. The amount of variety, the volume of information that was packed into that room was a dangerous distraction from the little double step in the middle of the shop. The earliest memory one of the authors has of the place is one of falling down these steps, having utterly failed to notice them. There was so much more in the shop demanding attention.

Tata Book House was such an integral part of our campus that many of us probably assumed that it had always been there, always would be ‒ and perhaps even that there was one in every IIT. The store was set up in 2006, with the building housing it having been built exclusively for that purpose. Coming back this semester to find it closed was at first slightly confusing, then annoying, before the sad realisation came that it was not going to reopen at all. The owner, Mr. Ramachandra, who also runs the Head Office of TBH in IISc, Bangalore, was here last week to complete the vacation of the premises and was kind enough to have a chat with us. The conversation was every bit as interesting as we could have hoped for a conversation with a bookstore owner to be. In his own words –

Mr.Ramchandra

I have run this shop for ten years. All these things, if I may say so, are the thumbprint of a great woman by the name of Usha Titus. She was both the Registrar and the Medical Officer of IITM, being an MBBS-MD-IAS. I made up my mind to come to IIT only because of her. Even now, I salute her. Ten years ago the Director was Prof. M.S. Ananth. Whenever he used to come to IISc, which was very often, he used to carry huge books in his car. He had asked me to consider opening a shop in IIT Madras and always used to ask me if I had made up my mind. I would say, “No Sir, I am happy where I am and I don’t want to take up any more shops.” He used to say, “Any day you decide, you are most welcome.”

Then it so happened that one day this lady Usha Titus came to my shop. I had two shops including a big one outside IISc. She spent time at my shops and got her doubts clarified about them from me, I wasn’t aware that she was the Registrar of IITM then. I got a call from IISc Registrar Office the same day saying, “IIT Madras Registrar is in the Guesthouse and wants to talk to you for half an hour.” Then I realised who she was and went to meet her. She said, “Mr. Ramachandra, I’ve come here to say that you should open a shop in IIT Madras and you should not say no now, I’ve come all the way having told Prof. Ananth that I’ll get a yes before I return.” You’ll be surprised to know that the building which stands there presently was built for the bookshop.

Her thoughts, her thinking were always very very positive. I am a person who always values positive thinking. She told me, “Now anyway you are coming, no question of refusing!” Then she took personal care in the construction and the establishment of the shop and also insisted that I give suggestions about the building design to suit my preference. When I came here for the first time, I was 47 and had a lot of energy. I personally stayed here for more than 21 days in the Taramani Guest House, and went all around the city to get things for the bookshop. I set up this bookshop on a very personal level. And finally the day came to inaugurate. I was given 25 rooms in this guest house for my guests who came from all over India, for the grand opening. I’m very strong in the industry, not in terms of business or financial status, but simple knowledge and the kind of name I have acquired from my work. Our industry runs on knowledge. Unfortunately now there are only few such people, so our industry is dying every day. So it was of keen interest to many people … people from Delhi, from Kolkata, my family and relatives. It was like a festival! In fact, Cafe Coffee Day and Tata Book House had opened almost together; there was a competition to open the shop. They opened on one Monday and I opened it on the following one.

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When I started this shop, Prof. Ananth and Mrs. Jayashree Ananth asked me about my books sales during the initial days, to gauge the interest of the students. When I told them my average income, they were very happy that students had enthusiasm to buy books. So, the shop went on and did well. I’m not a person who runs behind money, I’m a very contented human being, happy with what I have been given. I don’t regret anything. The only thing is, I should have a good shop, people should say my shop is great. My IISc shop today is not a small shop anymore, it’s about 4000 sq. ft. with centralised AC. That is the only campus bookshop in India today and has been quoted more than 50 times by Dr. Abdul Kalam.

Dr. Kalam was my customer from Day One, and remained so for almost 25 years, both before and after becoming the President. And he visited many times, spending many hours in my shop. Even after becoming the President, when he visited, he recognised all of my senior staff ‒ and he used to greet each of them by name. That’s how much familiarity he had! Now I have a lot of students from IISc as faculty members here. I don’t think of them as faculty, they still call me Uncle and we are very close. These are some things I always cherish.

 

One reason for deciding to close this shop now is that by health, I am not very comfortable; I am almost 57. And the second thing is, I am very busy with my IISc shop. I am overloaded. I’m no more able to comfortably travel between Bangalore and Chennai and run this shop personally.

Another important reason for bookshops having to close is that business has drastically come down because of online competitors, and we are literally under loss. So I thought this was the right time to close. But there’s a difference between 6 months ago and now: online shopping has come down over the last 3 months, as far as books are concerned. No longer do you get discounts on books on any of the online platforms.

At one point a couple of years ago, there were also some issues with the rent. In my opinion you should not compare bookshop with any other kind of store. The reason is that a bookshop is the last commodity of a human being and not all read books.  So you’ll not have numbers in customers for a bookshop. It is a very selective audience for a bookshop. And the second point is that, people who are running bookshops in the whole country today, nobody is making big money. It’s on passion and interest that one runs a bookshop. A bookshop is not the same as a hotel where one can invest in the morning and get back the money by evening.

This is my observation from selling books for 30 years and running bookshops on several campuses: I had a shop in IIT Bombay and also in NIT Trichy. I first closed my shop in IITB and then closed my shop in NIT Trichy, now I’m closing my IITM branch. So, at this point I feel the students are also becoming less interested in books, they no longer have that kind of interest to buy a book and read anymore, that proportion of students has drastically fallen.

To look at this in a positive way, there are two things. Now the students have a lot of other sources to rely on if they want to know something, they no more have time to buy a book, read, understand and gain knowledge. They are getting such facilities that they can simply check everything on their phone or system, and get almost everything they need. But from my side as a book seller I want to tell you that people now have got a very bad habit of cut and paste nowadays. It is only because you have that option in your system. In our childhood we used to purchase copy books and write a,b,c,d… hundreds times just to understand and remember them, but when you cut-paste it won’t go into your brain. The advantage is for the person who corrects the papers, he’ll read and correct, so the knowledge goes to him but not to the writer.

The other thing is that now no one wants to just buy a book by Feynman or Darwin and read them to explore and increase their knowledge in a different domain, they don’t have time. They are comfortable with the assignments given here–no more extra efforts. Probably even assignments are tough, these load you enough for your free time, and also the student doesn’t want to know anything extra nowadays.

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Empty shelves in the bookstore

In my experience, I have seen some change in the level of motivation of many PhD students also. The number of students who just want to somehow complete their thesis has increased. Though I still see some students who want to write thesis for their own satisfaction. Despite my pressure on a few of them to start writing, they want to take enough time and do justice to their work.

So these are all the reasons why a bookshop cannot be run now. A minimum revenue is required. All publisher discounts have been cut down to a bare minimum. For the wholesaler, the discount from the publisher is only 32.5 or 35%; from there to the retailer, he keeps 5% and gives us, and we give 20%. We may earn 10% at the end of the day, but still more than 20% of the stock is still left, this is how presently booksellers are running their shops. We have money in the hand but there’s no day when we’ll have any impressive amount in the bank. In the last days in IITM we lost even that revenue. No government has ever supported any big grants etc. for booksellers and educational institutes. Our industry is suffering now. We are not in a good state. It would be good if somehow some subsidy was given for a bookshop.

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Vacating the premises

As far as IITs are concerned I don’t think any bookshop has done very well in IIT. For that matter, I feel this was the best shop when compared to any other bookshop run in IITs in India. The reason the IISc shop is still running well is that, IISc is the centre of attraction in the whole country for research and higher studies in science. For knowledge in this country nothing can be matched to IISc. For instance, it has a lot of research activities, 100-150 conferences on an average. And we will always have very good business during conferences, because all the participants buy boxes and boxes of books for the price they get in India. And there is even more activity after the undergraduate programme has been started. IISc of course worked very hard to set up this programme and it’s doing very well now. Of course, it’s a long journey, once you decide to take sciences. And students at IISc until recently didn’t have any fests and so on for entertainment and relaxation. When a student decides to come to IISc he’ll have to sacrifice all that. The youngsters who come there are very inspired by the grad students.

You (authors of the article) joined IITM only a couple of years back, probably my bookshop looked very dull by that time. We were very bright before; I don’t allow my bookshop to become dull, I fill it with piles of books. If you ever happen to come to IISc come to my bookshop ‒ that’s a real bookshop, completely energetic and I’m very proud of it. A bookshop for academics is always different from any other store for, say, children’s books or storybooks. I’ll be there for another ten years very confidently!

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I enjoyed IITM, there is no doubt about that. I am happy that this IIT has given me a chance to run my store here for ten years. It’s even been declared number one in engineering, and I’m proud to say that I was also a part of it for ten years. I’ve frequently stayed at Taramani Guest House, and I’m still proud to say that they had given me 25 rooms for my inauguration accommodating a lot of people. That was all on the basis of sentiment, no business commitment or anything. I am proud to say that till date I have never paid even 5 rupees to anyone in IIT for any reason. Same in IISc, and I’ve been there for 32 years. That is my heart, I can’t leave my IISc store at all. And I had a good time at IIT also. But seeing the way the world is going, I don’t think this business would go up again. My last advice to all of you who read books is please buy books, else there will be no bookshops at all in the near future. Spending time in a bookshop is a pleasure; it’s an experience.

Disclaimer: The views are not to be construed in any manner as the official views of IIT Madras.
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Comments

  1. I have known Ramachandra for the last 20 or so years, and every word that he says is straight from the heart. I am sorry to hear that IITM shop is closing, and happy to read the things about IISc, as I work in IISc!

  2. I am so happy to have that shop there while I was in IIT. Picked up Feynman’s “surely you’re joking” and many other classics just because I had patience to visit the shop personally and spend time there.
    Sad to know that it is getting closed. A big salute to your services and all the best for the successful shop at IISc.