(Top:Ka Ibadasuk Books Agency)
Ka Ibadasuk Books Agency was a quaint little bookshop in Police Bazaar that still resonates in my heart. I was drawn to the shop because of its turn of the century interiors. They reminded me of the State Central Library. With time, I slowly realised that bookshops are shared memories. Passing through the pavement leading to G.S Road, I saw a chic dukan sha replaced it.
So I asked around. The waiter in the shop gave me the bookshop owner’s number.
It was through reading novelist Janice Pariat’s column in Business Line that I learnt Ka Ibadasuk Books Agency was formerly called Ratna’s Mascot. Pariat bought her first Enid Blytons and Agatha Christies from the shop.
Ratna’s Mascot was owned by Ratan Melwani, who divided his time between Shillong and metropolitan cities. His family, which was into business, resided in Ferndale locality.
Ernesterwell Kharmawlong is now 73 years of age. Right from the bookshop’s establishment in 1973, he held the post of manager till 1991, when he bought the business from the Melwanis. It was then that he changed the name to “Ibadasuk”, derivative of his youngest daughter’s name. The Melwanis shifted to Texas.
I recall in my teenage curiosity for diaspora studies, I discovered Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies in the shop. Albeit a corny collection, some tales made me look at expatriates as subservient to notions of “otherness”. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Biography, which I bought from Kharmawlong, directed me to countless memoirs, historiography and biography books. I also amassed a huge collection of Parragon pocket series with titles of Grace Kelly, Marlon Brando and Oscar Wilde’s humorous quotes.
Kharmawlong, speaking to Sunday Shillong, said it was never his intention to close the shop. “The sudden decline in sales was due to advent of ebooks and online shopping. Their magnanimous discounts of 50 per cent and 60 per cent incurred a huge loss upon us. The reason is we cannot price our books at those rates because even our wholesellers do not give such prices”.
Passing by the pavement spring of last year, I witnessed the shop revamped its interiors, putting on a new look. Coffee and comfortable seats were introduced, and its name was changed to B.R.I.F Novella.
“Yes we altered everything, but things failed to work. We were still supplying books to Government Departments, but in the shop it was meagre sales”, says Balarina Kharmawlong, daughter, who took over the business from her father.
During the 80s and 90s, when it came to general books, the most popular bookshops in Shillong were The Modern Book Depot and Ratna’s Mascot in Police Bazaar. The Modern Book Depot was a multinational chain that had everything from contemporary novels to foreign magazines and phonograph records. It shut down during the mid-2000s. Ratna’s Mascot, for its time, was well updated with new releases in the literary world. Its strong point was its Northeast section. By no means discriminating, the books on offer were mostly of local publishers and writers.
“That section attracted many tourists. Just last week, a friend of mine couldn’t get a book on indigenous languages in the market. I feel we could have catered to that if we still opened shop”, says Balarina.
Most of the income generated by bookshops today is through academic texts. Some national and local publishers are still unwilling to digitise their titles for fear of easy availability online at cheap prices and free downloads. Nowadays, bibliophiles and scholars not only go to Amazon or Flipkart, but also to Google Books and online libraries.
Sujit Singh, proprietor of National Book Agency, rues, “The Central Government should introduce new policies. As books in online market do not have MRP, they should subsidise the bookshop taxes”.
Singh complains that before Amazon and Flipkart, sales during the 2000s was very good. Now there is a marked deduction of 50 per cent.
Manoj Kuri, owner of Cambridge Book Depot, finds it amusing when young boys and girls come to the shop to click photos of book covers. “This has become like a trial room or a tasting menu if you like. They browse through the beginning passages, check the price and then go online”.
Hansel Shabong, owner of The Bookmark Sahaki, echoes Singh saying there should be central policies and guidelines to restrict discounts on books online.
Ka Ibadasuk Books Agency, last year before it shut down, came out with a clearance sale. The remaining books were sold and distributed to friends and village schoolchildren.
“It was a very difficult decision, for my family, to close it. We were facing loss, and couldn’t bounce back. We had to take that drastic step”, says Kharmawlong.
He adds that their most loyal customers were disappointed. “You don’t know how much I had to make them understand. They felt a sense of loss and longing”.
Balarina informed Sunday Shillong that Elza Khasi Cuisine had opened in the bookshop’s place. “A lot of investment had been incurred with this. But it has been going on smoothly”.
Balarina, wants though, to carry the tradition in future. “Our family is still in the planning process to open a new bookshop. We will go according to people’s tastes”.
She adds that online shopping sites do not provide sample chapters, and that Kindle gadget relies on batteries. “But bookshops are about the real tactile sensation of books. It is always rewarding to have touched and bought the book at its sticker price, and then journey with its story”.
This article first appeared in Sunday Supplement of The Shillong Times October 21, 2018 (link:http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/10/21/tale-of-bookstores/)