In a city full of malls and multiplexes, bookstores are few and far in between. Akshara Books, today, is the last independent bookstore of Hyderabad and the only sentinel for those who seek refuge in the written word. Started by Lakshmi Myneni, a former government officer along with a close relative, Ashok Kumar in 1997, it stocks popular classics, fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Mallik Thatipalli gives you an insight into this last store standing.
Myneni who grew up in Visakhapatnam, was an avid reader of both Telugu and English literature. As reading receded into the background due to familial and career responsibilities, it came right back to her when she needed it the most. In the late 90s, when she was looking for something to ignite her passion after opting for a voluntary retirement scheme at work, she found that a relative of hers wanted to start a bookstore in Hyderabad and therefore she leapt at the chance to reignite her old love.
When the duo started Akshara, the city already had well-established and reputed bookstores like Walden and AA Hussain and many even questioned the location in what was a relatively less populated locality of Banjara Hills back then, but the founders were firm on the location as they were saving spending on rentals.
Myneni recalls, “Reading culture was picking up then thanks to the software boom. We used to sell a lot of IT and general management books in our initial days.” In the late 90s, the store used to conduct a lot of ‘Meet the author’ sessions that grew very popular. Guests speakers to these sessions included Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, Kiran Nagarkar, Khushwant Singh, and RK Lakshman amongst others. Boasting of a loyal clientele and staff, the store started building on its initial success and soon became an institution in the city.
The store had a simple mantra for success: rent free premises, author meets to boost sales and walk-ins, small staff and a steady supply to few schools and institutions.
An era of change
In 2006, the store ran into trouble as their landlord evicted them overnight and it took them a couple of years and moving to multiple locations before regaining their foothold. Myneni agrees that it was a difficult transition, and shares, “I don’t know how we survived those difficult times. Moving constantly meant that we had no regular clientele.”
The tough times came to an end in 2013 as the Mynenis bought a home in the upmarket Jubilee Hills area and converted the ground floor into a permanent home for Akshara. They saved on rent and cut down on overheads heralding an era of equilibrium. The store had a simple mantra for success: rent free premises, author meets to boost sales and walk-ins, small staff and a steady supply to few schools and institutions. This ensured their stability.
Even during the height of the Covid crisis, the store kept its operations open as regulars kept enquiring for books. They made contactless purchases and ensured free delivery in the nearby areas to ensure that they served their loyal clientele.
At a time when independent bookstores across the world are facing a fight for survival, one stroll inside the store reflects a book store’s inherent romanticism and relevance. Crammed with books from end to end, it offers solace for book lovers tired of impersonal online shopping.
Akshara has something for everybody: Morrison and Mahfouz share space with Arundhathi Roy and Chetan Bhagat’s newest releases while Wuthering Heights peeks out from a corner. There are magazines, children’s books and the current bestsellers: self-help and spiritual books.
Stores like these are where we stumbled on old yet unheard stories, discovered authors with beliefs and thoughts alien to ours and indulged in buying books for reasons ranging from a great cover to a promising premise. It helped that each visit to a bookstore had a great takeaway: a new word, a new idea or a new love.
Myneni agrees, “Online is convenient. You order it today; it comes the next day. But it is devoid of an element of surprise. You buy a best seller or someone’s recommendation but don’t have a thrill of discovery akin to browsing in a store. It is the difference between taking a printout and painting from scratch. Half of the thrill is in the process itself.” What does the future hold for Akshara? The genial owner smiles and confesses that she doesn’t have a clue. “I have no fixed plans. I do, however, firmly believe that a new model will evolve soon. It will become clearer as time goes by.”
At a time when independent bookstores across the world are facing a fight for survival, one stroll inside the Akshara Books reflects a book store’s inherent romanticism and relevance.
Till then, Akshara is ready and waiting. For the young to get started on understanding the magic of words and be awed by the wealth of books they can lose themselves in. For old to be rekindled by words to show them why some things still are worth fighting for and that stories are all that matter.
“We are here for some more time,” asserts Myneni as if that’s a secret talisman that makes her go on. As the pandemic makes us ponder over the small joys of life, it’s time we rediscover the simple pleasure of entering a bookstore bursting at its seams, with books and stories to be discovered.