‘Wallpaper the Country With Books’: Mexico’s Gandhi Bookstores

In Feature Articles by Adam Critchley

One of the nation’s largest, Mexico’s bookstore chain named for Mahatma Gandhi increasingly depends on non-book sales to stay ahead, according to the company’s marketing manager.
Inside one of the Gandhi bookstore chain's 34 locations in Mexico. Image: Adam Critchley

Inside one of the Gandhi bookstore chain’s 34 locations in Mexico. Image: Adam Critchley

Of course, the question you have to ask first is “Why Gandhi?” And when Publishing Perspectives inquired, Alberto Achar told us why the Mexican bookstore chain is named for the mahatma: “My uncle fell in love with Gandhi because he thought it was amazing that he was able to achieve independence for his people through intelligence and not violence. Although it’s not the most appropriate name, in the sense that people might see us as an Indian bookstore, he decided to take the risk and run with it.” Forty-five years later, the risk is still paying off. — Porter Anderson

By Adam Critchley

‘To Make Mexico a Country of Bookstores’
In business since 1971—and with 34 locations across the country—Mexico’s Gandhi bookstore attributes its survival and success in part to having diversified away from books to embrace other products and accessories to attract, entertain and retain customers, the company’s marketing manager tells Publishing Perspectives.

Alberto Achar

Alberto Achar

“It’s a complicated business because the profit margins are small,” says Alberto Achar, “which is why there are not so many bookstores in Mexico.” Achar is the nephew of Gandhi’s founder, the late Mauricio Achar, after whom the annual Mauricio Achar-Literatura Random House award is named.

“We are dependent on book launches,” says Achar. “A year with a Fifty Shades of Grey or a Harry Potter or a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, makes a huge difference for us. While a year without big launches means a much more austere one. We’re very dependent on content, and the market shrinks without it.”

Gandhi has chosen to complement the bookseller business, Achar says, acknowledging that while books remain the company’s raison d’être, it has to diversify to survive.

“We have widened the panorama,” he says. “Books remain the principal product, but we are now extending the experience.

“The figures are not encouraging,” Achar says. “Mexico has 1,200 bookstores, for a population of 120 million people, whereas there are 4,000 bookstores in Argentina. Mexicans apparently read 2.9 books per year, while the book market in Mexico is worth around $700 million.”

Gandhi stores feature coffee shops selling beverages and snacks, as well as Ticketmaster booths allowing customers to buy tickets for events. The stores stock CDs, DVDs and a range of accessories, from notebooks to bags, toys and games.

“The broadening of the range of products on sale lengthens the customer’s stay in the store,” Achar says. “We have Wi-Fi, we invite storytellers for children to read on weekends, and there are more than 80 events monthly across all of our branches, such as book presentations and readings, elements that sweeten the experience,” he says, adding that the company aims to diversify its product range even more.

The original Gandhi bookstore location opened in 1971. Archival image courtesy Gandhi.

The original Gandhi bookstore location opened in 1971. Archival image courtesy Gandhi.

On Competition: ‘Not Just for Intellectuals’

Gandhi has both direct and indirect competitors—the former from outfits such as El Péndulo, a bookstore-café-restaurant chain that emerged in 1993 and now has six branches in Mexico City. It relies much more heavily on its restaurant trade than on book sales, Achar says.

And then there are department stores, which sell books, too, but in a different way, without allowing the customer to browse or linger. The majority of books on sale at department stores are wrapped in plastic and cannot be leafed through. And while there are well-established bookstore chains such as Porrúa, founded in 1900, and El Sótano, they don’t offer a diverse customer experience, Achar says.

That customer experience is something in which Gandhi has invested a lot, he says.

“We are also looking at trying out vending machines for books,” he says, while acknowledging the importance of the personalized experience for the book buyer, given the propensity of customers to seek guidance from in-store staff.

“Readers in Mexico are much more used to personal contact and recommendations in bookstores, and we tend to have much more staff on average compared with a bookstore in the US, for example,” he says.

In terms of the best-selling genres, self-help is out in front, followed by novels. Twenty percent of total sales are new releases, with 60 percent of customers seeking a recommendation from the store’s staff.

One of Gandhi's popular (and genially baffling) in-store slogans. "Arriving late? You Need a Good Story."

One of Gandhi’s popular (and genially baffling) in-store slogans. “Arriving late? You Need a Good Story.”

In recent years, Gandhi has gained attention for its intelligent, humorous and somewhat irreverent advertising campaign, serving both to foment reading and publicize the stores. The campaign’s media range from billboards and magazine inserts, to Web banners and a line of T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with slogans such as, “Reading makes you dream.”

“We created a marketing department 15 years ago to try to overcome the solemn image of books,” Achar says, “with a campaign that’s intelligent and irreverent and attempts to bring people closer to books with humor, sarcasm, and very colloquial local language. So as well as trying to open new branches, we are trying to create a culture of reading.

Another: "Less Face More Book."

Another: “Less Face More Book.”

“We want to show that books are not just for intellectuals, but can be fun too.

In addition to its 34 locations, “We now have 270 points of sale in department stores and supermarkets such as Walmart, in addition to our online store,” he says.

Gandhi was the first bookstore in Mexico to sell online and, according to market research carried out on behalf of the firm, the brand is now the first to be mentioned among 57 percent of respondents asked to name a local bookstore chain.

Inside Gandhi. Image: Adam Critchley

Inside Gandhi. Image: Adam Critchley

On Amazon: ‘We Have a Larger Spanish-Language Catalog’

Achar says that the arrival of Amazon in Mexico in 2015 wasn’t something that worried Gandhi because the Seattle-based behemoth’s relatively late arrival meant that bookstores were well-prepared for a stiffening of competition.

“It’s a very big and powerful brand, but we were also confident that our expertise in Spanish-language books gave us the edge as a source of recommendation of books and authors for our customers. We also have a larger Spanish-language catalog.”

Inside Gandhi, diversified merchandising includes T-shirts as well as books. Image: Adam Critchley

Inside Gandhi. Image: Adam Critchley

Gandhi is credited with having the largest ebook catalog in Mexico and it was at the forefront of the ebook’s development in the country, launching its own e-reader in collaboration with Toronto-based Kobo.

“The ebook arrived in Mexico in 2008,” Achar says, “and growth was strong initially. Now we have 5,000 downloads a month. But in Mexico, the format has not really taken off yet, and still represents only 1.5 percent of book sales. In the US and in some countries in Europe we are seeing that ebook sales have stagnated, and printed book sales have once again surged.”

It’s a trend that may well be emulated in Mexico, he says.

For now, Gandhi continues with its expansion, with locations in 13 Mexican cities. And it’s looking to expand into more. The company opened its second store in the central city of León earlier this month.

“We are selling a product, books, that do a lot of good,” says Alberto Achar. “The dream of Gandhi’s founder was to make Mexico a country of bookstores.

“We want to wallpaper the country with books.”

About the Author

Adam Critchley

Adam Critchley is a Mexico-based freelance writer and translator. His articles have been published in Latin American Literature Today, Brando, Forbes, GQ, Gatopardo, Publishers Weekly, Travesías and Vinísfera, among other publications, and his short stories have appeared in The Brooklyn Review, El Puro Cuento and Storyteller-UK. His translations include a series of children's books based on indigenous Mexican folk tales. He can be contacted at adamcritchley@hotmail.com.