By Smitha Murthy
For Radhika Timbadia, the owner of Bengaluru bookstore and café Champaca, 2020 was a year of reinvention and reimagination. Nestled in a quiet lane off one of Bengaluru’s busiest streets, Champaca came to life in 2019 with a dream of making diverse books more accessible. A dream of creating a space where books and food sparked conversations, sustained dialogues, and created communities.
And then Covid happened. Her dream looked suddenly distant, but for Radhika, it’s a dream that merely needed new wings for it to beat alive again.
Forced into an unprecedented lockdown, Radhika looked at other ways to keep Champaca going. “During the pandemic, we had to take one decision at a time. We closed in April, but we launched a discount voucher program. In May, we took our bookstore online. Our book subscription program took off as well in June, helping us to pay the rent and salaries.”
An ecologist, Radhika worked with the Nature Conservation Foundation, where she first realised the power of community. From wildlife to books might seem an odd leap, but for Radhika, they were intrinsically connected.
“I was always a reader, and I always went with a book when I went to these beautiful isolated places. The transition from studying wildlife to opening a bookstore seemed very seamless,” she says. A library course in Goa run by the Bookworm Trust only laid the foundation for building that Champaca dream: a collective space that celebrates diversity.
For Mumbai-born Radhika, getting children interested in reading formed a big part of that space. “How do we get children interested in the power of stories?” she asked herself. And that answer was Champaca, which also has a small children’s library and reading corner. The books at Champaca are curated by a community of curators, and the diversity in reading choices is immediately apparent as a result. The children’s library is registered as a trust with plans for regular Friday reading sessions.
Running a bookstore might seem like a cozy idea, spun out of sepia-tinted memories of peeling pages and the lounging cat. But it wasn’t easy for a non-businessperson to immediately make it in a male-dominated bookstore industry.
“All the publishers and distributors I spoke to were men. There was a time when a really big distributor with five men on the management team sat me down and told me just why I shouldn’t open a bookstore. Most of the time, men don’t even look at you in the eye. It took a very long time to establish trust and negotiate the margins they offer you,” Radhika says.
They say running a business requires a certain approach and attitude. Radhika readily admits that she was never a “hard-nosed” businessperson. The ethos of building something beautiful that captures the joy of reading is unchanged in her even with the harsher realities of balance sheets.
“You have to decide what you want your business to be. Finances are important. I don’t disregard that. But I also don’t disregard that I started this to create a community. Standard business advice will never tell you to be compassionate. But I like to look at growth based on the choice I made to create this space, not just on business decisions and financials. You have to weigh each decision and ask yourself, ‘Is this what you created this for?’”
And Bengaluru has readily answered that question, giving Champaca and many of the city’s other bookstores its unbridled support during this pandemic.
“Bengaluru has a great reading culture. I believe that there’s space for a niche space like us, and I still nurture the belief that this space is needed in our society. At Champaca, we believe that people will always want to meet each other over books, recommend books, attend book events, and talk about books,” explains Radhika.
She adds that Champaca’s growth has been purely organic with no ad spends or fancy marketing. She started small and the bookstore’s ethos remains rooted in being value-driven. “I am constantly learning new skills every day,” she laughs.
One of those skills helped Radhika win the Futurepreneur Grand Challenge 2020, an initiative of the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME). The Challenge recognises and supports some of India’s top women entrepreneurs in the food and beverage sector.
The award came with some much-needed funding and supports Radhika’s belief that building Champaca is an ongoing, organic process – a slow burn of a book, but one that is delicious in the stories it will eventually narrate. “I am aware we are trying to create something new. You question yourself constantly. But in the end, you just have belief. And then… you just go ahead,” Radhika says.
That’s a book worth reading.