Monday, 21 May 2012

Books: Vidya Virkar ~ A page from an old book

(I did this piece in 2003)

It's tough to tread in the footsteps of a legend. It's equally difficult to partner one. The scenario acquires additional shades when the legend happens to be post-independence entrepreneur T.N. Shanbhag, who set up the Strand Book Stall in Mumbai in 1948 and was recognised for his contribution to the Indian book trade with a 2003 Padmashri.

But to Vidya Virkar, partner in Bangalore's eight-year-old Strand Book Stall, these equations with her celebrated father have never stood in the way of charting new horizons.

During her formative years, the book trade seemed a far cry from her future dreams. "My background has been very eclectic," Vidya explains. "I did microbiology in a Mumbai college, and later bio-chemistry research at Cambridge. I went on to mass communication and TV direction. I was a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson in London, Lintas in Mumbai, then J. Walter Thompson in Bangalore again, before I set up Strand. I tried feature writing, too... "

That takes her back to Shanbhag. "Right from the start, Dad had always said, `Vidya, you fly. The bookshop is always there, if it calls to you at some stage'. But I knew somebody was needed to take over the baton. It's an incredible legacy and should not be allowed to waste away."

Vidya, as joint baton-holder of Strand with its annual turnover of above Rs 20 crore, has recast the brand with style. Bangaloreans look forward to competitive prices, an illuminating range of titles, and meet-the-author events.

Such as a glitzy evening with quote-a-minute U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor, the author of Riot and India: From Midnight to the Millennium at the Leela Palace Hotel in August 2002. Or the quieter release of Sahitya Akademi winner Shashi Deshpande's The Stone Women, her feminist short stories based on Indian mythology.

Ever since Strand opened in 1995, Bangaloreans have an annual date they have sworn not to miss — with the store's mega-sale. That's when teenyboppers and bibliophiles alike stock up on Dahl and Rowling, Plath and Petrarch, and every title in between, at rock-bottom prices. The cult sale scenes are replicated on a larger scale near Mumbai's Churchgate today. However, in small-town Uttar Pradesh or Orissa, book-buyers swear by the store's two-year-old Web site ( , with its assurance of quality books delivered at the door.

"The annual sale was my idea because Dad keeps ordering titles, resulting in huge stocks. It's also a way to reach a wider customer base," she says.

What kind of managerial skills were required to run the Strand at Bangalore?

"All I had to begin with was great motivation and no managerial skills. Perhaps my eclectic exposure to media and even science prepared me to deal with any situation," Vidya confesses. "It took me two years to convince Dad. Because he had built up Strand with blood, sweat and tears, at great personal sacrifice. He was very nervous that I would sink the entire ship! I learnt managerial skills on the job."

What did she master en route to success?

Staff selection to ensure personalised customer service. Stock movement in tune with market preferences. Discount delivery within fair trade norms. Event management to keep the brand in the public eye. Media interaction to heighten market value. Intellectually-inspiring talks with a difference — including one by physicist Dr Manoj Samal, who studies spiritual phenomena, reporting it scientifically and another on Gandhi by historian Ramachandra Guha.

"I never think in terms of money," Vidya stresses. "Strand is an entity that's more of an ideology of book-selling than a commercial interest. It seeks to disseminate the reading habit. Over the years, we've made books cheaper in terms of percentages. When Dad started, he offered a 20 per cent discount, which we've improved on. If books are getting more expensive by the day, so are vegetables. But I've made an effort to see that our basic minimal business needs and beyond are met."

Bangalore welcomed Strand because its Mumbai brand was so well-established.

How was it built from scratch?

Shanbhag, who was studying economics at Mumbai's St. Xavier's College, was a scholarship student from Tekkate, near Mangalore. His single indulgence? One Penguin book a month.

But while the down-at-heel student was browsing at a large bookstore, an officious staffer humiliated him. That's when Shanbhag swore he would one day open a store that stocked affordable titles and encouraged browsing. Initially, the Strand cinema house allowed him to put up two bookshelves, which caught the eye of the city's elite as they emerged from the English movies. Later, the Strand Book Stall — all of 750 sq ft — opened in Mumbai's Fort area. The legend has grown ever since.

Taking her cue from the original Strand, Vidya ensures that almost "every hour, on the hour" new titles are brought into view. "I've imbibed Dad's philosophy subliminally," she states. "Like him, I remain accessible to customers. I know their interests because I've seen them buy. Sometimes, I try to guide them into different directions."

She cites introducing numerous software engineers in this IT hub city to fiction by Arundhati Roy or Shashi Tharoor, current affairs by Gurcharan Das, or motivational or self-improvement books.

How has Vidya innovated?

To expand the awareness of IT individuals, Strand opened a store at the WIPRO campus in August. "Azim Premji of WIPRO asked me: `Vidya, do you expect my people to be reading books other than IT?' The aim is to do just that. I think people want to be more complete. After all, the top IT managers, the ones with a vision, are extremely well-read," she chuckles.

Another Strand outlet at the Infosys campus is in the offing. Within the main store, she empowered her staff to set up a full-fledged IT section. She dreams of Strand stores in other Indian metros as well.

What's special about being a woman manager?

"I tend to have a softer approach. That really works in human relations. I've been able to choose a good team, partly by intuition. That's not so different from Dad, who's a people's person. But by and large, men tend to be less people-oriented, more work and bottom line related."

Personally, what makes Vidya tick, beyond her 10.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. store? A nightly read, especially science verging on spirituality, `The Celestine Prophecy,' or Japanese authors like Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Lady Murasaki. Or listening to Beethoven, Bach or Mozart. Or interacting with customers from diverse background as individuals, often inviting them to a literary soiree instead of cocktails! And collecting art originals, including S.G. Vasudev, Navjot and Milind Nayak.

It takes daring to innovate on the life of Shanbhag's Strand. But Vidya has left an indelible impression, thanks to her people-plus personality. And her unconventional approach to bookselling, unconstrained by wisdom between book covers.

That's why Strand belongs as much to its second home in Bangalore, as it does in Mumbai today.

(The Hindu Business Line 2003)

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