India: Alternative book store earns laurels (IPS, 1998)


SUNS 4249 Thursday 9 July 1998 Mapusa, India, Jul 11 (IPS/Frederick Noronha) — Welcome to the ‘Other India Book Store’, an unusual shop here in coastal Goa state, that keeps only titles and writers from Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Located in a small building, alongside a private hospital and lawyers office, ‘OIBS’, as the bookshop is called, has been in the business of selling alternative journals, literature and periodicals for 10 years.

Launched by the lawyer-environmentalist couple, Norma and Claude Alvares, it has been doing brisk mail-order business in promoting ideas and publications of not-for-profit Indian and international organisations.

The range of books is eclectic: from Mexican literature, advice for health faddists who want to know why sprouted food is the healthiest, Bhutanese children’s tales to an analysis of TRIPS by a Malaysian lawyer, primers on right-wing ‘Hindutva’ philosophy.

It’s not a local hangout for bookworms. Most people in Mapusa, a tiny town of 30,000, haven’t heard of OIBS. But the post office knows the book store.

For years OIBS has been mailing books to readers in India and outside. “OIBS is one of the best-known addresses in town,” says a justifiably proud Claude Alvares, an environmentalist and campaigner for Third World interests.

Alvares and his lawyer wife who set up OIBS have handed it over to local managers and a trust set up to oversee the running of the store.

“We registered it as a society, got ourselves an export and import licence,” recalls Norma Alvares.

“We’re always looking at alternatives. Like, for example, we would not stock a book on nuclear plants, but on alternative energy forms,” she adds.

The majority of customers, some 75 percent, are from small town India. It is “the main reason why the mail order service works,” the managers say.

On Fridays, the market-day in Mapusa, is when foreigners visiting Goa walk up the hill to OIBS, which finds mention in the traveller’s Bible, ‘India Survival Kit’, part of the Lonely Planet guides, which calls the shop the ‘Best’ in Goa.

Eco-tourists come looking for ‘alternative’ literature and information, to buy posters and pick up information on non-governmental organisations advocating a ‘be kind to the environment’ cause.

“Our focus has remained making available literature and material which the market was earlier not prepared to accept, since these were seen as fringe material,” says Norma Alvares, a practising lawyer in the state High Court.

“I would say it’s alternative,” she explains. “Ours is not mainstream literature, in the sense it’s not produced by a publishing house who produces for profit. It is sometimes produced simply because someone wants to get the information out.

So there’s a wide variety of information for instance on India’s seed diversity, the various indigenous bovine species, literature on grassroots movements.

Shop manager Jerry Rodrigues believes the shop has created a niche market, and sell the ‘alternative’ concept. “OIBS has managed to show that these grassroots ideas sell. We’re able to compete even with mainstream outlets.”

Initially OIBS’s clientele was restricted to not-for-profit and campaign groups. Later, it found a market in universities and colleges. Academics realised that alternative publications had their ear to the ground, and were timely in analysing contemporary issues.

Soon, mainstream booksellers too started tentatively looking at such publications. But the majority of commercial outlets are still reluctant to sell such books: low prices mean low profit margins.

OIBS wants to remain focused on environmental concerns. But it also tackles women’s issues and health. And so far business has been commercially viable. Last year, sales were around three million rupees (roughly 80,000 dollars), up from a mere 25,000 rupees when the shop opened in 1988.

Rodrigues says that in a world where so many people are searching constantly, there’s a market for alternatives, as OIBS discovered. It has now built up a network of friendly outlets that stock its books across India.

The shop has also published a few titles of its own, under the ‘Other India Press’ label. Over the years, it has also reprinted some very popular titles, the best-seller was undoubtedly the ‘One Straw Revolution’ by the Japanese guru of natural farming, Masanobu Fukuoka.

Now in its fourth edition here, it has been widely bought. When the aging Fukuoka visited India recently, he was pleasantly surprised over how his ideas had taken root in this country too.

OIBS recently also came out with an ‘Organic Farming Source Book’, a 344-page directory on hundreds of innovative and pioneering organic farmers across India. Indian federal minister Maneka Gandhi’s ‘Heads and Tails’, a book on animal rights from OIBS, has gone into 13 editions.

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