In preparation for the readathon | Daily News


In preparation for the readathon

Before COVID-19 raised its strange head once again to send shivers down our spine, Children happened to be the luckiest lot. They made it big on the day reserved for them on October 1. One Galle Face, a newly erected skyscraper of some sort, was open for fun-filled activity. Once been there, you shall never forget the presence of this particular bookshop perched on Level 4.

Occupying the cubic corner, you are free to enter here with no door standing in your way. You don’t have to look far above to check what this place is called. Look right beneath you, there it is: Sarasavi. Yes, the bookshop.

Sarasavi is known for its omnipresence across the island. But this particular branch is a cut above the rest. It is more spacious – perhaps the most spacious – with a vast swathe of lawn and ubiquitous seating arrangement for its learned guests to enjoy the consumables before deciding on the purchase.

The event that occupied this venue was Story Time session jointly organised by the Gratiaen Trust and Sarasavi Bookshop. Held free for all, the children were treated to ice cream too downstairs (which is of course a little more expensive in this building than average elsewhere).

Quite passionate about the event, Sarasavi Bookshop Chief HD Premasiri looks forward to organising more events of this calibre.

“We do not want to charge the kids who take part in this, because our intention is different. We need to make this place familiar with children. This could be a fresh experience for them. This is a bookshop that can give them a fresh experience. This suggestion by Gratiaen Trust is very timely.”

Occupying a stall in One Galle Face is a challenge, especially for a bookshop. The rents are soaring at the centre of Colombo. And people love food more than books. There are more food outlets than bookshops. Premasiri, who intends to open two branches in Borella and Horana in addition to the expanding network of over 20 branches, is nevertheless confident about the industry. He plays a different tune.

“Some bookshops sell more English books, whereas some opt for Sinhalese. But we sell them on an equal range. We release a large number of English publications as well. Some of our branches like Pelawatta have more English because of space issues and customer demand.”

Sri Lankan English readers tend to prefer Western fiction to Sri Lankan English fiction. Sri Lankan English writers, on the other hand, are lesser known in the global sphere than Indian English writers. In such a backdrop, Sarasavi publishes a considerable number of English books. Is there a market?

“There is a market. But not so big. We can sell English books 500 and 1000 maximum. We can’t get beyond it. It is an increase over the last few years. Sri Lankan English readers buy more Sri Lankan English fiction than Indian English fiction. Except for the likes of Chetan Bhagat I mean. This trend is growing thanks to the Gratiaen Award.”

Upon a Sleepless Isle authored by Andrew Fidel Fernando (published by Pan MacMillan India) won the Gratiaen Award for 2020. The book was already available in the country. But the reader’s demand grew with the Gratiaen Award. Stories by Charulatha Abeysekara, which won several awards in addition to the Gratiaen in 2016, was sold more than 2000 copies. If the books are of quality, Premasiri is certain about the sale.

Sarasavi is most known for its Nugegoda branch. This branch in One Galle Face has a completely different setup. The prices are soaring almost everywhere in the building, but here the books are available at the proper rate.

“Our audience here is mostly upper-middle-class customers. They are 50 per cent Sinhalese but whose first language is English. This place will be more popular when the country opens up to tourists.”

Even amid COVID-19, the people still came to buy books. It was well exhibited at the book fair. The statistics spoke a lot about the reader’s quest for the printed book.

“We claim about 25 per cent of the book market share. Even authors of other publishers we sell around 250 copies. We need to have more activities of this type to encourage reading. It might not be at the One Galle Face Branch alone.

We hope to take this to our Kandy branch too. Space is the biggest advantage we have at the One Galle Face branch. Any bookshop must have space. The readers cannot just buy books.

They need to read a bit. They need to feel the book. Most foreign bookshops have space reserved for readers. But in Sri Lanka only a few bookshops such MD Gunasena in Pettah have space.”

What most bookshops have less, ironically, is books itself – save for some exam-oriented books. They have more stationery than books. They give 75 per cent prominence to stationery. But in Premasiri’s network, that prominence is given to fiction.

When digital books were gradually making inroads into the industry, the local publishers of course had ample grounds to worry. The ‘digital’ euphoria died down, the quest for physical books lingered on. Not in our lifetime, HD Premasiri remains confident, that ebooks will ever replace physical books.