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What does it take to run a bookstore in a digital world? Meet Jatin Lalwani – the guy selling books from his basement.
A cosy building tucked in the corner of a street. Dreamy shelves arranged by genres. The subtle woody smell of new books. A bookstore is nothing less than a portal for the average heart-eyed bookworm looking for their next favourite read.
But what happens during a deadly pandemic and an even deadlier economic lockdown?
Well, humans have this knack of adapting to their environments. You don’t need fancy walls and strategically arranged shelves to sell books. Social media has changed the way businesses work. Why should a bookstore be any different?
Meet Jatin Lalwani, the man behind The Basement Bookstore. Jatin runs an online bookstore business from his basement and helps young Indians find their next read. His bookstore works in a simple format, almost like an auction. Jatin posts his stock on Instagram, and prospective buyers ‘claim’ the book. For the inexperienced – this is a fairly new concept in India. Jatin Lalwani says that he was inspired by booksellers in the US and decided to implement the idea.
Well, this was a resounding success as readers love the hassle-free approach. That The Basement Bookstore has a strict no piracy policy is another plus point.
The Basement Bookstore opened on 31st July 2020 with about a hundred followers. In just one year, the bookstore has grown into a community of more than four thousand on Instagram.
The Basement Bookstore: The Story Behind a Successful Small Business
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most independent booksellers are readers themselves.
Jatin was a preteen when he began reading back in sixth and seventh grade. He began with contemporary Indian authors like Chetan Bhagat and slowly cultivated a taste. About contemporary Indian authors, he says, “I know there is a lot of bashing against these authors, but I feel they contribute a lot to young Indian readers. A lot of people start reading because of them.”
Today all regular customers of the store know that Jatin’s favourite book is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (These books got featured on the anniversary cake!). His favourite genre is historical fiction.
Jatin Lalwani chats with IcyTales about the story and the person behind The Basement Bookstore.
Q. First of all, congratulations on completing one year. You started on 31st July 2020 with about a hundred followers. The account now has more than four thousand followers, and you’re frequently engaging with your customers through communities like Clubhouse, Telegram, and more. What drove you to open an online bookstore?
Jatin: Well, the original goal was to open a book cafe. I have been reading since I was in the sixth or seventh standard. I was also interested in food and the hospitality industry. I have a degree in hotel management. Initially, I wanted to open a cafe or a restaurant. But then I thought – why not combine both of my passions? I am from Jaipur, Rajasthan, and Jaipur does not have book cafes, unlike Mumbai or Delhi.
After I graduated in 2019, I started working on my dream. We had started working on the constructions but couldn’t continue because of Covid. We had also bought the stock. Since Covid wasn’t going anywhere for at least two years, I thought, why not take the business online? I was inspired by international booksellers who sold their books on social media.
Fortunately, I was always a part of book clubs online on Instagram and WhatsApp. I have many reader friends online who have been very supportive. They started sharing about the store with their friends, and that helped with the growth.
Q. What’s the story behind the name The Basement Bookstore?
Jatin: I had decided very early that I wanted to get into hotel management – back in ninth or tenth grade. And this might sound cliche, but I always knew that I did not want to work for someone else. I knew I needed work experience, but I was determined to work for myself.
I knew that I was going to open a book cafe because I loved reading. Back in 2019, I had already bought the stock for around 20 to 30 thousand books. Within a few months, Covid started spreading in India. The stock was just lying in my basement, and I would keep checking on them. That’s when I decided to start selling the books in my basement, hence the Basement Bookstore.
Q. How has Covid affected the bookstores in Jaipur?
Jatin: First of all, there are not a lot of bookstores in Jaipur. Most of them are used bookstores, or they provide a small discount. Of course, Covid must have affected the bookstores here. But even before the pandemic, people were already opting for Amazon or Flipkart. It makes sense for the reader because they will want to buy the books for cheap. In fact, a few customers ask me to sell pirated books or xerox copies.
Q. Do you have someone to help you with the business, or do you handle everything on your own?
Jatin: I do everything on my own – the sorting, packaging and logistics. I am very passionate about the bookstore, so I don’t mind doing the extra work. There are days when it takes me nearly 15 to 16 hours, but I don’t mind.
Q. What is your favourite part about running an online business?
Jatin: Honestly, every part of the business is my favourite. Getting the stock, talking to people. I love interacting with people.
Q. What is the least favourite part?
Jatin: I think packing is my least favourite part. I am a lazy person and don’t enjoy packing so much.
Q. Who has been your constant support and pillar all this time? Is there some inspiration you look up to?
Jatin: There are a lot of sellers in Europe and the US who sell books through Instagram. They had been doing this for the past two or three years. That’s what inspired me to do the same in India.
As for support, my family has been very supportive of my business.
Q. How do you think social media has changed the way booksellers conduct business? What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage?
Jatin: It (social media) has changed the whole experience. It has also made everything much easier. Of course, there are websites, but if you don’t have a large stock, you don’t need one. It doesn’t make sense to create a website for selling only 20 or 30 books. Instagram is different.
I know a lot of people who have started selling from their collection. For instance, if someone has 500 books and wish to sell maybe a hundred books. They open a new account and “unhaul” their books. Instagram has been amazing for me.
Q. You have mentioned that you do not tolerate piracy in your store. How can readers be more aware of book piracy?
Jatin: Piracy is affecting the book industry very badly. It shouldn’t happen. I have posted a reel on the Instagram page about the same. There are a few common markers for book piracy—for example, the quality of the cover. The book cover can be faded or have poor resolution.
The alignment of texts is another parameter. However, small publishers often do not have access to big machines. In this case, the alignment might be slightly irregular. But pirated books have terrible alignment. You can also rub the ink on the pages to see if the ink bleeds.
Another marker is the price of the book. For example, I saw that Barack Obama’s ‘A Promised Land’ was sold for a throwaway price. Pirated books are very cheap. The price is almost too good to be true.
Unfortunately, the book piracy business can be very clever. Buying directly from the publisher helps, but it can be hard to detect.
Q. How do big brands like Amazon affect the bookselling business? How has it affected your store?
Jatin: For selling on Amazon and Flipkart, you need permission from the publishers. I am not against people selling on Amazon because it is the seller’s choice. Many sellers choose to sell on a small scale.
Q. How do you aim to spread awareness about The Basement Bookstore in the future?
Jatin: I will stick to organic growth. A few influencers want me to collaborate with them, but I always say no. Regarding business, I always prefer quality over quantity in terms of followers. I don’t want followers, I want customers. But of course, if I have more followers, the reach will be more, and people will trust us more. But I prefer organic growth. For me, even four thousand is a big deal.
Q. Would you like to tell us something about your plans ahead?
Jatin: I am working on the book cafe, but that won’t be happening for at least the next couple of years. It doesn’t make sense to open the cafe now, especially with the threat of a third wave. I would rather stick to online business for now.
The Basement Bookstore is more than an online business. It is a community of young bibliophiles who meet virtually to share their love for literature.
You can find more about The Basement Bookstore on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thebasementbookstore/?hl=en