Books, Bookstores and the Pandemic: Sikkim’s Rachna Books during COVID-19

An interview with Raman Shresta, Rachna Books and Café Fiction and literary enthusiast.

Books, Bookstores and the Pandemic: Sikkim’s Rachna Books during COVID-19

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Rachna as a bookstore?

Like every other business it has hit us pretty hard, but the pandemic also gave us a good time to retrospect and re-invent as a book shop has always been about swimming against the current. So, although it has been difficult, we have been able to adapt with greater agility.

Sikkim has now had multiple lockdowns and other restrictions. And even during partial lockdown, many people were apprehensive to visit shops and stores. What are the changes that you adapted to overcome this issue?

Our engagement on social media went absolutely high. We really got ourselves engaged there. So, as a result, our outreach went beyond people who just visited our store. During the partial lockdown, I began delivering books to doorsteps on foot as far as it was possible. We even made deliveries to as far as Ranipool. I took it upon myself as my duty to make books available to readers and lovers of books. There were friends who helped in reaching books to readers. And eventually we made tie-ups with a couple of food delivery services to send the books through them. So overall, we made the best of the times to keep the reading culture going.

Over the past few years, there has been a shift to online shopping. Since everything is available at the click of a button delivered at your doorstep, more and more people are shifting to e-commerce for convenience’s sake and safety concerns during the pandemic. How has this impacted the book store as an establishment? And how are you adapting to this transforming culture?

I feel the lockdowns had some amount of impact on many online delivering services too. But this constant battle has always been a losing battle. Having said that, a book store is always about resilience and we have been doing what we can. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of us who run bookstores across India came together to form Independent Bookshops Association of India (IBAI). This helped us stay in touch and learn from each other and we no longer feel isolated. Many independent bookshops have started setting up online stores as well. We have also been working towards building one as it is important to be quick on our feet.

Rachna Books is more of a cultural and intellectual space. Online sessions and discussions have its own limitations. During the pandemic, what are the efforts put it to keep this culture alive?

One of the main things that we love to do at Rachna, though not for a commercial point of view, is the events that we organize. And we have always refrained from online events. Now we have a base of customers and friends who have always been a part of the bookstore and believe in supporting local establishments. With them we continue to stay in touch and this engagement, at least on a one-to-one basis, helps me keep the connection alive.

Rachna Books has now entered the publishing sector. Could you tell us a little more about it?

Over the past 21 years I have been running my bookshop, I have realized that many books that are important to this region doesn’t get enough priority when it comes to printing and publication. Even the few that does, happens to be from publication houses abroad resulting in the books being very expensive and inaccessible. With many educational institutions in Sikkim, it is necessary to provide accessibility to books and resources to the scholars working on this area. So that’s how our role as a publisher came in. We published a book about the history of Sikkim Opening the Hidden Land- State Formation and the Construction of Sikkimese History by Saul Mullard. Our second work was a collection of poetry by TashiChopelHow to Collect a Folk Tale and we are currently in the process of bringing out a book by Alex McKay, The View from the Palace- A Political History of Sikkim.

We have also made a tie-up with a publishing house in Nepal. We have decided to bring out translations of Nepali literature that is doing well and make it available to readers back home. And we have also been approached by a few interesting projects and it has been working pretty well for us. And the reason why we entered the publication sector is playing out well for us.

What kind of works are you looking at, from a publication point of view?

We are currently focusing on some serious work on regional history. For instance, in August 2020, we announced a call for papers where we had invited people to submit their proposals to work on gender issues in this region. We received 49 entries in total of which about 12 were shortlisted. This will soon be out as a collected work. Otherwise, we are not chewing more than we can swallow right now. Our focus now is very sharp on certain styles and genres. But we will eventually take up translations as that is the way to go. I personally am more interested in translating our stories and making it available to readers around the world.

One of the major things that literary enthusiasts of this region look forward to in ‘Converse’. Could you tell a little more about it and when can we expect the next ‘Converse’?

‘Converse’ is a part of the North-East Writers’ Forum that every state in the North-East has. It involves a lot of visits and interaction between writers from other North-Eastern states as well as Bhutan and Nepal. It has evolved into our own ‘literary party’ over the years. We have planned to bring out a published volume of anthology of writings from Sikkim. The call for writings is currently on for the ‘Converse Chronicles’. My role will come a little later when the project reaches the publication stage. But this is something we are looking forward to.

We are waiting for things to get a little better and we have many new ideas germinating in our heads. With the books that are coming out, I would love to do a few books tours and have more outreach programs, especially with the schools, colleges and universities in Sikkim. We would be more than happy to open up, but it is equally important to take necessary precautions in times like this.

By Vaidyanath Nishant.