The students at the Seagull School of Publishing have often bemoaned the lack of a good bookstore in Kolkata. Our only options seem to be small cubbyholes in Boi para, or large, impersonal spaces that claim to be bookstores but seem to have just a few popular titles spread out between stationery, toys and other merchandise. The session with Rick Simonson last month, seeing the pictures of the Elliot Bay bookstore in Seattle, left us feeling quite sorry for our state. Some classmates remembered the Seagull Bookstore fondly, and we wondered why it had to shut shop, now remaining only as a showroom for Seagull publications. We wondered why the chain stores seem to thrive in the city, while the independent bookstores that we desire do not exist? We thus requested for a session with Naveen to understand the history of the Seagull Bookstore.
Naveen spent last Friday with the Seagull class, telling us a story that would make quite a page-turner. Henry James in his novel The Ambassadors speaks of the virtues of being a ‘perfectly-equipped failure’. He shows an uncomfortable world that values only money, and he notes: ‘Anything else today is hideous. Look about you—look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour?’
The story of the Seagull Bookstore perhaps is a clear example of a failed attempt that shines as an inspirational success, bringing together a community and reminding it of what they truly need to value—not the money made in reality, but the dreams of youth!
As Naveen led us through the history of the store, he gave us a parallel insight into the world of independent publishing too. Especially publishing as an independent in Kolkata, and the play of personal–professional relationships. Seagull has experimented with the Bookstore twice—once in 1986, soon after the start of the publishing house itself, and then later in 1997.
The early attempt was grand in scale, with some 92 direct accounts set up with publishers around the world, the best titles sourced, and several in-store events executed. However with a nascent publishing business to run, a list to build and an identity yet to be established, sufficient efforts could not be directed into running the bookstore business. The credit periods ended with low cash in the till, and the relationships required to run the bookstore were no longer viable. The publishing business could not subsidize the bookstore beyond a point, and the experiment had to be stopped.
The 1997 bookstore experiment actually arose from a disastrous event for the publishing vertical—the all-consuming fire at the Kolkata Book Fair. While the fire gave rise to immense debts, it also revealed the support of the publishing, and arts community. With their support, Seagull Publishing pulled through, and it also tried to extend this support to other floundering colleagues. Two such colleagues were offered the Bookstore space to re-start their careers, and Seagull relied on their retail experience to make a success of the experiment this time. The earlier model of direct accounts, sourcing of several titles, and in-store events was repeated. However, success still eluded them. The store, while widely respected, with many celebrity clients, still failed to make any money.
The store last shut shop in October 2011—though the dream lives on. Naveen admits to having quite a few insights into how the bookstore experiment could possibly be made a success. He also notes his inability to devote time towards the same. When the students suggested that perhaps we, as part of the Seagull School, could make a continuing project of the same, Naveen immediately showed interest. The ball is now in our court—can we make a viable business proposal, fully exploiting the depth of retail experience and the width of the publisher’s network that Naveen promises will be available to us? I guess we will soon know.