Reading on the wall

Written by Namrata Rao | Updated: Jan 19 2014, 07:27am hrs
On a cold, nippy December morning, two friends decided to check out the month-long clearance sale at the Delhi branch of Eloor Libraries in tony South Extension-I. Within four hours, the duo picked up over 100 titles worth about R20,000, thanks to the 50% discount that was on offer across the board. As they were leaving the library, two women from an NGO in Tamil Nadu, working towards the education of children, were still wiping the shelves off of all the Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl books they could lay their eyes on.

The scene was, however, not too happy for the management of Eloor Libraries, which is among the best-known private libraries in the cities it is present in, especially in south India. After all, it was packing its bags after about seven years of its existence in the national capital, struggling to make both ends meet. Headquartered in Kochi, Kerala, Eloor Libraries has four branches in Trivandrum, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata, besides Delhi.

In an era of the Internet and with electronic reading devices becoming more popular, traditional libraries like Eloor are staring at an uncertain future. Coupled with the fact that the habit of reading is on its way outwith the younger generation preferring smartphones and computers over physical booksthese brick-and-mortar libraries are dying a slow death.

We had to shut down as the Delhi business wasnt profitable, says Gautam Luiz, managing partner, Eloor Libraries, adding, There has been a 20% drop in business over the last three years across India owing to concepts like online shopping and electronic reading devices, though only with certain types of people. His father, Luiz John, started Eloor Libraries in 1979 in Kochi. Delhi was the sixth and newest branch.

Its been seven years since we started and have tried really hard to make the library a place of value for Delhiites. But theres no point now in staying open if we are making just about enough money to meet our expenses, says Luiz.

Agrees Pankaj P Singh, chief executive of Chandigarhs The Browser Library and Book Store: The loss in business because of online shopping and e-reading devices has been at least 20% over the last year... We would be lucky if we break even this year on costs, says Singh, who started The Browser Library and Book Store in 1997.

Roxy Circulation Library in Mulund, Mumbai, which was started by the late Kantilal Chheda in 1967, is one of the largest private circulating libraries with a collection of over 40,000 titles. The library is today run by his son, Bharat Chheda. The effect of online shopping has been huge as e-stores offer heavy discounts. Theres also the added advantage of easy accessibility. Plus, people are reading less these days compared with 10 years ago, says Chheda, adding, Many libraries have had to shut down in our area due to this. In this electronic age, people spend more time with their gadgets like mobile phones or Kindles.

Phoenix Library in Pune was started by JN Ponda, now 80, in 1959. Over the years, his library accumulated more than 35,000 titles across genres and also got listed in the Limca Book of Records for the special newspaper clippings they paste inside books for the readers reference.

But those days were different. Now, its a daily struggle to keep the library afloat. The effect of Flipkart and Amazon has been devastating for our library. We have lost several customers and our countdown to closure has begun unless I go online, says the octogenarian.

Talking about numbers, Ponda says, They are so measly, I feel embarrassed to share them. I used to make about R5-6 lakh every year, but now it is about R3 lakh per year.

Ponda is now looking to sell the library or go online. I want to go online or sell the library, he says, adding, My library has huge potential which I have not been able to tap because I could not be tech-savvy, he adds.

Clearly, technology cant be ignored any more. And some players in the business have now started innovating and adapting to the changing tastes of people to stay in the business. A prominent example of this is, an online library, which has two branches in Hyderabad and Bangalore. I was working in the US for three years before I moved back to India, says Vani Mahesh, founder, I had enough expertise in Web programming and understood books and libraries. Given the busy life of people in the metros, I felt an online booking with delivery and pick-up (of books) might help a lot of readers. Thats how was born.

Mahesh says her library has never been a loss-making venture in the 13 years it has been operational. That said, growth and investment in a library have to be conservative. Digital reading and hard-copy reading will exist side by side for many years to come, feels Mahesh.

But for those who fell in love with e-reading devices the first time they touched them, there is no better alternative to reading now. I never thought in my wildest dreams that there would come a day when I would exchange the feel and smell of paper for a gadget, says Sivabala Thillairaj, a 43-year-old housewife from Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Thillairaj was a member of Dheepam Library in the city since 1989 and had read nearly every book there. She was among those who disparaged e-reading devices, saying an electronic gadget would never be able to replace books. But then my husband started a BPO centre a few years back and bought an Amazon Kindle for the company and I got hooked. Choosing the font size makes reading much more easier on the Kindle. There have been many occasions when the minuscule sizing of letters was what discouraged me from reading a particular book. Plus, I can carry up to 300 books with me on my gadget, which makes it a very convenient companion on journeys, she says.

For Uday Vitthal Prabhu, a 47-year-old businessman from Mumbai, the main reason for switching to a device was the distance from a library and the unavailability of books he wanted to read.

Electronic reading devices have made access to news, medical journals, history, geography, etc, easier and cheaper. The most important and appealing part is that it is instantaneous. You just think of a topic or any subject of your interest and you can download an encyclopaedia on the topic in moments on your device, he says.

For some book lovers, though, there isnt a better feeling than holding a book in their hands. Says 54-year-old Nirmala Christina: It is so refreshing the fresh smell of the paper, its design. Its a pleasure to hold a book in your hands. Madurai-based Christina has been a member of Dheepam Library in the city for the past four years. She doesnt have a personal laptop or netbook, as a book in my hands is more handy than any other instrument.

There are also some book lovers who did try their hands at e-reading devices before quickly retracing their steps. I tried reading on electronic devices, but it never fascinated me. It might be convenient, but not fun, says Vibha Suresh Nayak, a 24-year-old Mumbai-based social media analyst. Looking at current trends in reading, people will believe that online reading is the next big thing, but you cant compare it with reading real books. The charm of it is such that no electronic device can replace.

As for the future of libraries, it is still uncertain, says Luiz of Eloor Libraries. I honestly dont know. I hope they survive e-books, smartphones, etc. A lot of people are book lovers and want to read, but dont make the time or dont have the time these days, he adds.

We need a social movement to encourage reading in India. Reading can be kept alive only by high-quality libraries, which are run by people who understand books and care about reading, says Mahesh of