By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
Avoiding ‘Overordering and Overpaying’In Mumbai’s Bandra district, a stone’s throw from Jogger’s Park on the Arabian Sea, a tiny alleyway leads to the independent bookstore and library called Trilogy.
Christmas 2022 marked Trilogy’s eighth anniversary, but the store was closed for 20 months during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. The owners only recently lifted a mask mandate and a by-appointment system for everyone’s “peace of mind.”
Ahalya Naidu and Meethil Momaya opened the generalist, “curated” store in 2014 in a location in southern Mumbai. They moved north to their present location in a small two-level house in the summer of 2019. In March 2020, they had to close Trilogy because of the COVID-19 lockdown, but by then, Naidu says, “We’d made enough friends, enough readers. So, we kept in touch with them via email and WhatsApp.” The couple also organized curbside pickups and deliveries, and they put a limited number of books for sale on their site.
The steady flow of customers in the store on the ground level and members of the library upstairs is an endorsement of how many see Trilogy as a booklover’s haven, even in its new location. The shop and its library in 2018 won India’s Publishing Next Award for Bookstore of the Year.
Naidu and Momaya met when she, a former journalist and editor, and he, a wildlife photographer, collaborated on an article. When she adopted an abandoned male Labrador puppy, he became their dog and a mascot during the creation and realization of Trilogy until his death last year. Initially, Naidu and Momaya thought they’d create a publishing house specializing in Indian wildlife and nature and they traveled to New Delhi to take a publishing course from the National Book Trust.
“Twelve years ago,” Naidu says, “everything in publishing was happening in Delhi, and it’s still happening in Delhi. At the time we didn’t feel we could move there. Then we realized that the kind of books you had in Delhi you couldn’t find in Bombay. We thought we could solve that and focus on the books that don’t make it here.”
They chose the name Trilogy because of the importance they wanted to give to the reader, the writer, and the book. “Our curation revolves around all three,” Naidu says. Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence is still facing out on our shelf. There can be books that were published 10 years ago but we believe they need that focus.
“There are writers, Alexander McCall Smith, for example, we try to keep all his books in stock. This is maybe personal taste but when people come in and recognize certain authors, they know where we’re coming from, too. Rather than a collection that’s always new, there must be something from before, as well. We’re very faithful to our authors.”
The Bookstore-and-Library Business Model
The idea for creating a library with the store grew out of the theory that in Mumbai, as in many big cities, extra living space is a rarity. “People don’t have enough room for all the books they’d like to keep,” Naidu says. “So libraries help in this way, especially for kids’ books. You only keep a certain number of books at home and then you try out new books at the library. And of course, book prices are rising.”
“People don’t have enough room for all the books they’d like to keep. So libraries help in this way, especially for kids’ books.”Ahalya Naidu
The library, which has more than 1,000 members and an extremely flexible lending plan, has turned out to be a useful element of the bookstore’s business model. It gives readers a chance to explore and try new authors, whose work they can then buy at the store. This willingness to read new authors is nearly a prerequisite for Trilogy’s readers, as ordering books, which come from New Delhi, is not an easy task for Mumbai booksellers and takes a month—even three months if a book is ordered from the United States or the United Kingdom.
“The supply chain system in India is still not good,” Naidu says. “Usually, the books we want aren’t in stock with the distributor [in Mumbai] and must be ordered from the publisher’s warehouse in Delhi. If they aren’t available in Delhi and need to be procured from the US or UK, that’s another loop. Sometimes the publisher has frozen the distributor’s account due to non-payment. In that case, the publisher’s representative has to alert the bookseller and see if another distributor can pursue this order. If there’s a delay in this communication, then [more] time is lost.”
Damaged books are also a big issue for booksellers. “Since the books journey so far and are handled twice before reaching us, the potential for damage is huge and sometimes there aren’t enough copies to send us a replacement. We have to inflate the number of copies that we require because we know some will be damaged.
“We can return only a certain percentage so we tend to order very conservatively because we can’t fall into this trap of overordering and overpaying. This takes up most of our waking hours, ordering and following up. Getting books is our only headache. Everything else sort of works.”
Supply and Demand
The bookstore side of Trilogy stocks around 10,000 books and the library has a similar number. When bookshops reopened post lockdown, Naidu says that people couldn’t wait to go to them and buy books—the demand was greater than the supply.
“Our customers are very happy to explore. … Sometimes they’re here for a book on food, and they leave with a book on archeology.”Ahalya Naidu
“We’d order books even more frequently,” she says. “We expanded our collection, ordering books that aren’t your regular bestsellers. We have so many more books on Bombay, for example. A city with such history needs more books, whether fiction or nonfiction. And Bombay warehouses don’t stock backlisted books. Even Salman Rushdie—who’s always in the news—you have to get his books from Delhi.”
Luckily for Trilogy, “Our customers are very happy to explore. They don’t come with an agenda of just one book. Sometimes they’re here for a book on food, and they leave with a book on archeology.”
The vast majority of Trilogy’s books are in English. Five percent of the books are in Hindi and Marathi. Among trends she sees, “People are trying very consciously to start reading in their mother tongues.”
Since Geetanjanli Shree’s Tomb of Sand won the 2022 International Booker Prize—having originally been written in Hindi and translated into English for Tilted Axis Press by Daisy Rockwell—”Many people want to try to read it in Hindi,” she says, “and that’s really something. The prize and publicity were really great and started a reading journey. We have people coming in for dictionaries in Hindi or Marathi.”
Despite the lengthy lockdown, Trilogy’s move to Bandra has been a happy one. The clientele is made up of families and people in the creative industries. What’s more, the building to which they moved is where Momaya’s mother ran a successful garment business for 40 years. When Naidu and Momaya founded Trilogy, it was just the two of them. Now they have four employees, three of whom battle the sea breeze and humidity, keeping the books dry. Two employees used to work for Momaya’s mother’s apparel company.
“They’re like the guardians of the place,” Naidu says. “They know all the neighbors, and this is very important. The idea of community is all around us and it makes our work so much simpler. Both of us prefer to be more friendly than businesslike.”
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, which factors into this story, is here.