A majority of public libraries in the country remain in a state of despair resulting in lack of access to good reading material for many. But now, a handful of individuals have come to readers’ rescue with an innovative solution in the form of private libraries. These are spaces that offer not just unhindered access to books, but also a multitude of cultural events, ensuring a rounded experience for readers.
They don’t have dilapidated buildings or battered books. There is no stern librarian demanding silence or looming bookshelves stacked close together. The membership is either free or nominal. They are neither run by the government nor large corporations. These private libraries are just spaces put together by book lovers for like-minded people, helping them explore books in a more relaxed manner.
The term ‘library’ is undergoing a makeover, with many different formats of the conventional space coming up across the country. Take, for instance, the ‘Library on Wheels’ programme of the Maharashtra state government launched recently in collaboration with Indian Railways. The programme allows passengers travelling on Deccan Queen and Panchavati Express trains to procure books, read and return them before alighting the trains.
The biggest gamechangers, however, have been private libraries, which are offering informal reading spaces without the single objective of lending. The curators of these libraries, in fact, are working towards fostering the reading habit among a generation fast becoming habitual to only 280-character lengths, offering them the benefits of convenience, choice and cost.
These private libraries source books directly from large distributors and publishers, ensuring better discounts and lower costs of inventory. Some also offer pickup and delivery services. What’s more, a few even function as part-bookstore and part-event space, organising art workshops, poetry projects and even regional film screenings from time to time. “There is a good market for private libraries… and there are a lot of people out there who want to foster the habit of reading. If libraries can address the pain points of a reader—commute, lack of good collection, time and membership cost—they will survive. The government should also exclude private libraries from GST,” says 40-year-old Hiten Turakhia, co-founder, CEO and managing director, Librarywala.com, an online library based in Mumbai.
Read on to know their stories…
For the love of books
An entirely free home library in Mumbai runs on the back of crowdsourcing.
Mumbai-based Pushpendra Pandya has worked at many odd jobs. From being a bartender and copywriter to working as a social media consultant and even a call centre executive, he has done it all. “I started working when I failed my class X boards for the first time in 1998. I have sold bangles at exhibitions, worked as an assistant at a dentist’s clinic, as a waiter for local caterers, etc,” the 36-year-old says.
Becoming a librarian, however, was a childhood dream. One that he realised in 2013 by starting the free of cost Crowdsourced Library, which is run entirely through crowdsourcing. Over the years, he built up a collection of over 10,000 titles—he had around 100 when he started—with the help of friends and strangers who donated books. The idea for the library, he says, came out of an informal discussion with friends on book-sharing arrangements.
Pandya (who also works at a mental health centre in Mumbai, handling its administration and communication) operates through a well-connected set of friends and strangers who have one thing in common: love for books. People contact him through SMS/WhatsApp, asking about the availability of a certain book. Readers can also get in touch with him on Facebook for the complete list of books available. Pandya then himself delivers (and later picks up) the selected book over the weekend. “Readers often donate books to me because they believe that, through Crowdsourced Library, their precious books will likely get a new home as opposed to ending up with a ragpicker,” he says.
The biggest challenge for this multitasker, naturally, remains finding the time and money to run his pet project. “It went well initially when I had time on hand. But it’s always been heavy on the pocket as, from delivery to pickup, it’s completely free. I did try the membership model, but it didn’t work out,” says Pandya.
Lack of space to store books is another constraint and that’s why, over the past few years, he has donated many books. “It was difficult to stay in a rented house and move every year with so many books. So I donated a lot of books to schools and other libraries. Currently, I have around 500 books (of the 10,000 he had collected),” he says.
That, however, hasn’t stopped this book fairy from planning a physical library, which will also be crowdsourced. “It’s a crazy idea, considering I live in a rented house and will have to rent a commercial space for it. But I am sure I won’t be the first person to do that.” Pandya also intends to start an independent circulating library near his residence in Vasai. “I haven’t got any funding, so I am planning to spend on my own and see how it shapes up. For this one, I will have nominal subscription charges,” he says.
This Mumbai-based curated library, bookstore and event space puts the reader first.
Mumbai-based Meethil and Ahalya Momaya’s association with books goes back a long way. The husband-wife duo, in fact, would regularly provide book recommendations to friends and family. Soon, 37-year-old Meethil, a wildlife photographer by profession, and 35-year-old Ahalya, an independent book editor, realised the need to set up The Eternal Library, which they started in 2013 as a consultancy service for corporates and residential units, advising clients what books to stock, from where to source, how to catalogue, how to set up a library, among other things. “We realised that the motivation for a corporate or housing society to set up a well-stocked and regularly-refreshed library on their premises was nearly non-existent. We needed to show them how simple to set up and important a library can be,” says Meethil.
A year later, in December 2014, the duo set up Trilogy, a fully-functioning and curated library in the heart of Mumbai’s business and residential district of Lower Parel. The 2,100-sq-ft space, with wooden flooring and bright walls, soon became a favourite of the city’s residents—they buy books on readers’ recommendations. The library is also part-bookstore and regularly organises reading workshops, book club meets, book launches, author meetups, etc. “Our members today include expats, bankers, lawyers, architects, artists and children,” says Meethil, adding, “We planned it as a curated library, bookstore and event space with a heavier emphasis on the library.”
The duo believes that there exists a huge potential for private libraries, as the number of titles being released every month is huge and libraries have almost disappeared. “Buying books is much more easier now, but storing them isn’t. It’s not easy also to keep buying books in a long-running series… for example, those aimed at children. The economies are not wallet-friendly. A private library can, hence, step in to address this need,” Meethil explains.
Trilogy has seven membership plans of two-week and three-week durations, with rentals ranging between `300 and `800. Besides fiction, they are well-stocked in books on art, travel, economics and writing. “The strength of Trilogy lies in the curation and our personalised recommendations for members and bookstore patrons,” says Meethil, adding, “We also reach out to readers via pop-up bookshops and group memberships with corporates and housing societies.”
For the couple, the real challenge lies in marketing. “We have been relying on and benefitting from word-of-mouth publicity since we started. Social media has really helped us reach out to readers,” says Meethil.
An IoT-enabled commercial library chain with over one million non-academic books .
Founded in 2008, JustBooks Solutions (a chain of rental libraries that works on the franchise model) was formerly part of Bengaluru-based services firm Strata Retail and Technology Services. In December 2016, however, CoCreate Ventures acquired stake and management control of JustBooks Solutions.
Today, JustBooks has grown to 80 centres across Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai and Mumbai. The commercial library chain has over one million non-academic books in English and regional languages, offering free pickup and delivery service, with mobile- and web-based access to classical, rare and recent books.
Most of the libraries of JustBooks are spread over 1,500-2,000 sq ft. To store their huge collection, the company has built warehouses for those libraries that have a book strength of over 50,000. “These warehouses cater to customers who want to use our services purely online. These warehouses also ensure that there is a larger inventory of books available for our members who visit our physical stores,” says 43-year-old Suresh Narasimha, chairman, JustBooks Solutions.
The library operates on different membership models—the most popular is one where a member can avail two books at a time under a monthly membership fee of `360. They can exchange books as many times as they want and there are no late charges. “Each year, we add 30% more members to our network of readers,” Narasimha adds.
On an average, the library gets around 100-200 readers across centres everyday, with young parents and children being frequent visitors. “Our centres also run as ‘culture places’ that offer exclusive curated programmes (such as storytelling and book club sessions, etc) for the audience,” says Narasimha.
Last year, the company tied up with Godrej Properties to launch a library in that company’s upcoming residential project, Godrej Platinum, in Hebbal, Bengaluru. As part of the agreement, JustBooks will be providing library management services and books for a library within the campus for residents.
There is also a great thrust on technology. “We have introduced the concept of IoT-enabled mobile vans, where a high-end experience van with the best of our collections is driven to residential localities,” says Narasimha. Readers can browse the physical books, as well as the online collection, using touchscreens inside the van.
JustBooks also enables readers to use technology in the form of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification technology used in stores like Walmart or other supply chain management systems) tags to issue, return, search for and request books. By using RFID, the company can also check the availability of several books at a time and route them to those libraries where these books are in demand. “There is more than `30 crore capital invested in the network (setting up of the entire infrastructure) and roughly `10 crore is invested in managing the library network,” Narasimha says.
The challenges, he says, exist in the several regulatory norms such as taxes and lack of incentives. “We strongly feel that this is one industry where government subsidies are a must,”
Virtual reading corner
A Netflix-like online library offering everything, from fiction and children’s books to self-help.
This is a library whose business model is inspired by the subscription-based streaming media service Netflix. Not surprisingly then, Mumbai-based Librarywala.com has around 5,000 registered users in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune.
Librarywala.com took shape after an initial research was carried out by the two founders (Hiten Dedhia, who is no longer with the company, and Hiten Turakhia) where they stood outside several bookshops with a brief questionnaire for readers. The idea was to figure out the feasibility of a venture like an online library. In 2007, the founders launched Librarywala.com.
Talking about the genesis of the online library, Mumbai-based Hiten Turakhia, co-founder, CEO and managing director, Librarywala.com, says, “Reading is an expensive hobby and there were hardly any libraries with a good collection of books… There was this vacuum. Good books were not easily available and local libraries mostly had just famous titles. We started in 2007 with a collection of 8,000 books, which, at that time, was the highest number of books for a private library in India. Today, we have everything, from children’s books and the best in business management to fiction and even a great self-help collection.”
On an average, the library, which has a pickup and delivery service, gets around 970 unique visitors everyday—around 1,300-1,400 books are delivered to homes daily. There are several subscription plans, ranging from availing one book a month at `110 to 12 books a month at `750. “Almost 77% of our audience is in the age group of 22-45 years and 21% of them are above 45 years of age,” 40-year-old Turakhia adds.
When they started, logistics, however, was a key challenge. “We spoke with several courier companies, but some didn’t have reverse logistics options, while others were downright expensive. So we decided to have our own inhouse logistics team, making deliveries and pickups affordable,” Turakhia says. In the past 11 years, members have borrowed around 32,28,409 books, which comes to an average of around 2,93,491 books a year.
In 2009, a corporate approached them to set up a library in their office and they decided to venture in the corporate segment as well, offering customised solutions to corporate clients, ranging from loaning them books to customisation of reading plans for them. Today, Librarywala.com caters to 80 corporate clients. “We offer multiple options, allowing our corporate clients to not only fund their libraries with our books, but also offer their employees a best-in-class library service without them having to open a library at their office. The company pays only if their employees read and there is no minimum billing,” Turakhia says. For corporate members, the library also offers profession-wise reading recommendations and even training workshops at the client’s office.