It has an eminently missable en-trance, even with its address in hand you could well get lost, and for days together few clients visit this outlet. Yet, Goa’s Other India Book Store has a turnover which surpasses many other crowded outlets.
Based in Mapusa, this untypical not-for-profit organisation is doing good business. It is also contributing generously to promote Goa as a meeting point for ideas and information from across South Asia and across continents.
Lonely Planet, the influential publisher of guidebooks for global travellers, has labelled OIBS as “the best bookshop” in Goa, noting that the bookstore stocks no titles from Europe or America – all are published in Asia, Africa or Latin America.
OIBS was launched a decade ago by the well-known environmenta-list-lawyer couple Claude and Norma Alvares to promote alternative ideas through the distribution of like-minded books and periodicals. Today, it is managed locally and a trust guides its activities.
The breakthrough has been to prove that grassroots ideas do sell. “Our strength lies in the fact that we’ve been able to make a concept like this work. We’re able to compete even with mainstream outlets,” says manager Jerry Rodrigues.
OIBS began by distributing a handful of books and magazines published from other parts of Asia, including Malaysia and the Philippines. This brought the welcome news to activist groups in India that there were other Asians thinking on parallel tracks on development, environment and Third World concerns. The idea of the bookstore had clicked.
In a Eurocentric world, OIBS has much to offer: it tells us what Asia thinks, Africa feels or Latin America writes. The range of offerings is wide – literature from Mexico, children’s tales from Bhutan, a Malaysian lawyer’s analysis of TRIPS, or primers to understand Hindutva politics or the Lankan conflict.
With some surprise, the Alvareses found that the Indian not-for-profit groups were strangers to each other. A green group in Gorakhpur would not know what a similar group had done in Kerala, because nobody was marketing their publications. OIBS cashed in on that niche. Its USP, then as now, was that the books would arrive “at your door”, packed well to withstand the rigours of Indian summers and train treks of thousands of kilometres.
Initially, the clientele was limited to not-for-profit groups, but later OIBS discovered a good market in universities and colleges. Scholars and students had begun to understand that NGO publications had their ear to the ground and were timely in analysing contemporary issues missed by the media at large. Soon, mainstream booksellers too started looking at what OIBS was distributing.
The main handicap with selling alternative publications was that their low-price meant that the sales
commission was low. OIBS got around the problem by coming out with its own catalogue, in tabloid size and packed with titles. The latest one has a thousand titles, all very nicely annotated. “Anyone who writes in for any book is put on our mail-list and continue receiving our catalogue,” says long-time staffer Rose.
Today OIBS finds ready clients from the hills of Meghalaya to the far-flung Andaman Islands. The book-buyers from small towns are “the main reason why the mail-order service works”, says Rodrigues. They bring in about 75 percent of the business, while about 20 percent comes through the trade circuit. The remaining 5 percent goes out to foreign orders. From INR 25,000 worth of publications sold a decade ago, OIBS’ sales last year were up to INR 3 million.
An affiliate of OIBS, the Other India Press, comes out with 10-12 publications a year, with focus on the environment, women’s issues and public health. It recently came out with the Organic Farming Source Book, a 344-page tome that highlights the work of innovative and pioneering organic farmers across India. Union minister Maneka Gandhi’s Heads and Tails, a book on animal rights, has gone into 13 editions.
OIBS’ bestseller is undoubtedly One Straw Revolution by the Japanese guru of natural farming, Masanobu Fukuoka. Now in its fourth edition here, it is also out in Marathi and Hindi. When the ageing Fukuoka visited India recently, he was full of awe over how his ideas had taken root in India. All thanks to an alternative bookstore in Goa.