The Bookseller as Curator

Last week a post by the Ajitvikram Singh, the owner of Fact & Fiction, an indie bookstore owner in Delhi, about his decision to shut down his store, created a minor kerfuffle in our blogosphere / twittersphere (or at least in the cerebral regions of these).

The post is here.  Link.

The news itself, that of an indie bookstore shutting down due to declining footfalls in the digital age, is nothing new. Yet, Ajitvikram Singh’s article is interesting from the viewpoint of his description of the bookseller as a curator. I excerpt relevant passages from his article

  • -  I remember the first question most distributors asked me when I started: How was I going to choose the books? To most of them, my selection was esoteric.
  • - Owning a small bookshop had some advantages. It forced me to be excruciatingly selective about the books. This allowed the bookshop to be more eclectic, as opposed to others who would house a collection thrust on to them by the distributors.
  • - The broad consensus among publishers was to send me books no one else could figure out. Till date, unsuspecting clients still walk in and ask where I get my books, why the selection is different from other bookshops, and who chooses the books for me. Some are still quite unconvinced that I got my books from exactly the same source as every other bookshop in the city, and that I personally choose to keep the vast majority of books out of the shop. Perhaps it reflects my biases. Mostly, it’s to do with being a reader.
  • - …the role of a bookseller, I believe, can, at best, be described as a kind of curator. A function rendered redundant today when every book is a mere listing on the internet.
  • - I maintain books are highly tactile objects and cannot be sold on the internet alone. The art of browsing and the serendipity of finding unconnected books are hard to emulate in the virtual world. The number of people who come in to find books, then to compare prices on their smartphones, while the slightly sensitive ones merely photograph the book and then order from home, only goes to validate my point.

 

From Ajitvikram’s description of Fact & Fiction, it reminds me of Mumbai’s wonderful (and defunct) Lotus Book Store, which had a similar eclectic collection. That was the store in which I first sighted Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (and I remember gasping at the sight of it, and perhaps the price as well!) and many other unusual books, which I have never seen anywhere.

Both these bookstores had an owner with taste (or idiosyncrasies) which resulted in a distinct collection, as opposed to the blandness that you find in a chain bookstore such as Crossword. These quirky bookstores sell not only books but they also sell discovery (more specifically, a high probability of serendipity, of chancing upon interesting books). Historically all bookstores typically sold some amount of discovery with their books. The more indie the bookstore the more they sold discovery and curation.

Books thus are the currency through which we paid for discovery time. Just as coffee is the currency through which you pay for seat time at Starbucks. Now with the delinking of discovery and books, than to the rise of Amazon, book sellers are at a loss. It is almost like you can bring in a cup of coffee from your house and get a seat at Starbucks.

How do booksellers, assuming they last, charge for discovery? Some thoughts.

  1. 1. Can you created a completely curated book store and charge consumers Rs 100 / $2 per hour for time spent? Say akin to how a museum charges? Unlikely i think, though you can look at a cordoned-off special section where you get an expert or celebrity to curate books. Get a Nassim Taleb or Steven Pinker to send you their recommendations and then you stock the bookshelves thus. Strand Book Store of NYC has a concept they call Author’s Bookshelf, where they ask writers to share what their bookshelf of say 50 books looks like. Strand then sets up a shelf in their store which readers can buy from.
  2. 2. Can you charge for discovery as an extra service, and over time build it as a separate revenue line? Daunt Books and Heywood Hill are two independent book stores in London that have built a service around curation. Will this service work outside of a global city like London or NYC, in a Mumbai or Delhi? I am less sure.
  3. 3. Could you sell discovery as a B2B service to online book stores? Echo Nest, a music discovery technology startup, now acquired by Spotify, provides a parallel. Is there a similar one for books? Strictly no, though there are attempts in the book discovery tech space such as Bookvibe (which uses twitter data to generate recommendations), BookLamp (trying to create a BooksGenomeProject a la Pandora, and now acquired by Apple), WhichBook etc, but really nothing on the scale or breadth of a Echo Nest. However I am not sure if a bookseller (steeped in the world of physical books) will be able to put together a crack tech team to take on this space. But I do see possibilities for someone like Ajitvikram Singh or a ur-bookstore owner to be a consultant to a book discovery tech startup or even help curate books for a digital storefront. Why couldn’t Fact & Fiction’s online bookstore be hosted on Flipkart, getting an affiliate payment (for curating)?

Now that Ajitvikram Singh is free and has time on his hands, perhaps Flipkart could get Ajitvikram to curate a storefront for them?