From the street, Blossom Book House has the illusion of being a small store. But step inside and you'll see aisles of books stacked high. The owner, Mayi Gowda, manages this organized chaos of books, which spans three storeys, across both carefully constructed shelves and piles on the floor.
With the store's popularity with both tourists and locals alike, one would assume that it's a legacy business, handed down from one generation to another. But Mayi started selling books on Bangalore's streets in 1995, after moving from a nearby village to study engineering.
Having launched Blossom Book House in 2002, Mayi has since expanded to a second location. His store has become a favorite for book lovers living or visiting the city, where people can browse at their leisure, ask Mayi for recommendations and find out-of-print titles. Blossom Book House has survived through the rise of online retail and the pandemic by giving bibliophiles what they love: a place to browse a carefully curated collection of unique books.
The story begins
‘When I moved to Bangalore during the early nineties to study engineering, I [lived] in a hostel that had multiple book vendors outside,’ explains Mayi. ‘I started helping the booksellers, to pay my bills. They'd pay me 100 rupees [£1] per day, which would suffice. But, while helping them out, I realized it was a good business. I decided I could do more – [I] told the person I was working with that I'd take some books and sell them in another neighborhood. I took a bus and found a spot in one of the popular areas in the city. To my good fortune, one of the top bookstores had shut [its] doors for renovation for a couple of months, and I started selling right outside. I ended up selling to many people who turned up to purchase from that bookstore – around 15 books a day, earning close to 300 [£3] rupees, which was three times more than what I'd make helping other booksellers. It also gave me flexibility with college during the day. I started to enjoy selling books so much that once I graduated and was hired as an engineer, I quit to become a full-time bookseller.’
The magic of old books
‘The USP [unique selling point] of our stores is old and secondhand books. In one of my shops, 70% of the collection is old books and, in the other, it's about 50%. Many local bookstores have shut down and Amazon sells only new books. The reason for the shortage of these books is that they go out of print very soon – some publishers stop printing books that are even five to 10 years old, which makes [them] scarce and more valuable to my customers.
‘We source our collection from a lot of places around the country. From very early on, I traveled to other cities and brought back a variety of books. I'd go to Chennai, Hyderabad and even Delhi. Getting good secondhand books isn't easy. New books are available everywhere, but that's not the case with old books. At the time, I didn't know what kind of books would work well in the store – so, I used to buy whatever was available, which meant I made losses. But, with trial and error, I started to understand the books my customers were looking for.
‘My relationship with these vendors is so strong now that I don't need to visit them. They collect the good books and send [them] to us. Every month, I have around £15,000 worth of books shipped by these vendors from across India.’
Finding a niche
‘There are a few other things we've done to maintain a unique experience for our customers. From the early days, we told our customers that we'd buy back their books. Initially, we [paid] them in cash, but many weren't too thrilled about taking money. They suggested that they'd rather receive credit notes for the books, which meant they could buy more books using that note. This idea took off. After they're done reading, customers come back and exchange their books for others at the store.
‘We never bother [customers] when they're browsing – they can spend as much time as they want. People come, sit and read, without even buying the book. Pricing also played an important role that allowed us to grow even as [online sales] took off in India. Our prices are similar to what online stores offer.’
‘We wanted to go online even before Amazon and Flipkart [an Indian online marketplace that was acquired by Walmart in 2018] launched in India. I knew online would be the next big thing. We'd built a basic website around 2003, but [we] couldn't maintain it. There were a bunch of problems: server, hosting issues, our engineers left. At the same time, offline sales were growing, so we didn't really have a reason to spend energy on building an online presence. The thought of relaunching the website was almost forgotten – we even lost our original domain name, which I'd bought for 100 rupees [£1].
‘Then the pandemic hit. We were at home for two months during lockdown. Then the city relaxed its restrictions and we opened our store, but customers didn't show up. Everyone was too worried. We announced on Facebook that we'd be making home deliveries – all they had to do is place orders on WhatsApp. Orders started pouring [in].
‘Then we had another lockdown. That's when we realized we needed to launch a website. Sometime during 2020, we launched the website. Sending books became much more large scale, so we'd ship them from our warehouse directly. A lot of our customers now use the website to browse and check if a book is available.’
A sense of community
‘Before Blossom, I read books only in my mother tongue, Kannada. But, as I started selling English-language books, I started reading them. I mostly enjoy crime thrillers – one of my favorite writers is Georges Simenon. Because of my reading, I've been able to suggest good books to customers. Just recently, I had a customer who walked in seeking recommendations [for] author Ruskin Bond, who she was visiting soon. I pulled out two books by Margery Allingham. Later she sent me a message saying Ruskin Bond [had] enjoyed [the] books I'd picked out. I felt thrilled – what else could I ask for?’