By Venkatesh

Back in 2003, when we first decided to take the plunge and rented a house in Chittaranjan Park, one of the first bits of advice we got was from the manager of a distribution company. “You want to set up a bookstore just for children?” the disbelief plain in his voice.

“We have done our market research,” we countered loftily. The ‘research’ result was based on a solitary bookstall in a Durga Puja mela at DLF Gurgaon in October 2002, when over two days we sold off our entire stock to what seemed like millions of children who swarmed around the 3metre by 3metre kiosk.

We went on to tell him that we had taken up a place, built the bookshelves, got the software ready that a software consultant friend (a certain Mr Amit Roy who worked nights to get us free software) had designed just for us and colourful, arresting logo that another friend Vivek Pareek had crafted. “All we need now are the books.”

“No,” he said emphatically, “you haven’t. You should have got twine, strung them along the walls, hung the books and waited to see the response before doing all this.” Anyway, he gave us our first lot of books as did many of the subsequent distributors we me. And, on April 1 2003, we started off with all the gusto of a Usain Bolt coming off the blocks.

No looking back?
This is where, in a down-memory-lane story, the writer comes up with the phrase, “there was no looking back”. Not so in Eureka!’s case. Looking back became as much of a part of our lives as did understanding the market and knowing the right book to stock. Plus, the fact that we had to hold on to our jobs forced the bookstore to be a 4PM to 830PM operation.

The CR park outlet - Circa 2003The holy grail of retail - location, location, location - came to haunt us with a vengeance. A house is not the best of places to run a commercial bookstore. Summons to the MCD office and the court became as regular as the quarterly stocktaking exercise. Confessing at the dock - “Yes, I am guilty” (for conducting commerce in a residential block, never mind the fact that the entire stretch of the road had tyre retreaders to huge furniture vendors packed like sardines) - was too much to take after a point. Plus, there was the little matter of the fine.

It also didn’t help that despite the best flier-distributing efforts of three people (apart from helping with software, Swati’s husband, Amit, had a major role to play in Eureka!’s early life - rushing about with us at four in the morning doing house-to-house flier drops), seeing more than a handful of customers in the store was a source of amazement.

More unsolicited advice poured in. Put in a photocopier machine or two, suggested a kindly soul - “You will get a steady income.” Sell stationery. “Better still, sell imported stationery,” said another, “There are huge margins in that.” Greeting cards could see you through, someone else ventured forth with.

We then did something that should have been done 19 months earlier. We moved shop to the small Alaknanda market just opposite Don Bosco School. It was a change for the better. We hit it off with the landlord who came up with a reasonable figure for the rent. For the last eight-and-a-half years he has been a great friend and supporter.

The people who made Eureka!
A bookstore is made by the people who are involved with it - whether customers or those who work there. We have been extremely fortunate in both cases. While our customers kept us afloat, our employees kept the engine ticking over steadily.

In early 2004, having tired of distributing fliers (or pamphlets as they are called), we hired a newspaper vendor to do the job for us. We would print thousands of copies that he would deliver to various colonies in the vicinity of Chittaranjan Park.

One evening, a reed-thin, rapidly balding yet young figure presented himself at our door, flier in hand, and asked, “Do you give your pamphlets to xxx?” Nodding eagerly, we tell him, “We see even you have got one.” Without a word, he goes back to his bicycle parked outside and comes back with probably 1,000 Eureka! fliers. “I found them in the dustbin outside your friend’s stall,” he said simply.

Ramu (he is a newspaper delivery boy at daybreak) has been with us ever since. Even today, he never wastes an extra word on the phone (not for him the niceties of signing off courteously. Message received, he would just disconnect), but is worth his weight in gold.

In AlaknandaTwo of our latest recruits came on board in equally interesting fashion. Vineet, our manager now, mailed this missive to us: “I wanted to ask you whether you were open to a young, enthusiastic boy (Me) working with you as a volunteer (without pay)… If you are a bit sceptical about this, I would ask you to perhaps just try me out for a week, or even a day. If you don't like me, you can kick me out and I won't mind it at all. And I drive really well so I can deliver books too!” We put him in charge of schools. Always quiet - and courteous to a fault - he never let on that he was an engineer too.

Or take Joy. He is connected to his mobile, which, in turn, is connected to any social media site you care to name. Eureka! is his night job. He runs the website, manages the store and gets us talked about online - while doing his MBA during the day. But he has a Eureka!-first policy. There have been some others along the way whom we lost - one to marriage, another to the Chattisgarh Police Force and one more to journalism.

Eureka! moments
It has been a fun ride in all these years. We sold books, made friends, started in-store events and also managed to launch Bookaroo, the country’s first children’s literature festival, which is a two-city event at present. More cities are coming up soon. Bookaroo came into being after our experiences of running sessions at Eureka! where we couldn’t fit in more than 20 children at a time. Jo Williams, who had met us briefly in 2007 moved to Delhi soon after, came on board to help launch the first edition in November 2008. Bookaroo is five now.

Eureka! has had its sour moments. Opening a second outlet in a mall in Saket and shutting it down in four months flat heads that list. Getting flooded (the store is in a low-lying area between GK 2 and Alaknanda) when it pours is a close second. Many is the time when we have had to rush back at 2 in the night to see the damage that nature wreaked. We also got to know about various shoplifting techniques the hard way. We had a children's magazine, Heek, that was put to bed permanently after two years - it was probably ahead of its time.

When you are 10, there are more happy moments to look back fondly upon. Especially when you are an independent, neighbourhood store. Few things beat the feeling when people come back asking for more becausTenth year! Spot the changese you recommended a book they liked.

Or, when a young couple walks in and the girl tells her companion softly, “My mother brought me here for the first time when I was in class VII.” And then turns around to us and says, “You may not remember me, but I was a frequent visitor here many years ago. Meet my husband. We live in Bangalore but plan to drop in during our annual visits here.”

Or, about the new mother who picked up a book on her way home after being discharged from the hospital down the road, because she wanted the child to get a feel of books early on in life. Or, when you get invited for dinner or tea at your customer’s. Or, when your customers walk in to advise you on display options, ask you to increase the size of the signboard so that more people are made aware or just drop in for a chat on their way for a walk in Jahanpanah Park. Or, when more schools call you to put up fairs in their premises because of the collection.

Dwindling visits from officialdom is another high, though occasionally the local police do drop in to sympathise about our choice of business. “Can a bookstore sustain itself?” says their pitying glance. The only brush with the law is deftly avoided if we shift our generator into the shop as soon as the cry goes around that the squad is out on inspection.

Publishers and distributors helped immensely with generous terms even when we were starting off. One of our biggest kicks came out of visiting publisher warehouses and picking out the books that we wanted to sell. There has been the odd book launch too and a steady stream of authors, illustrators and poets who never hesitated to come when we invited them to, sometimes at really short notice.

At 10, we are incredibly excited about the future. We hope the next decade will be as interesting.