Spreading the joy of reading: Walking BookFairs has covered 20,000 km across 20 states
Akshaya Routray and Satabdi Mishra are reaching out to thousands who have no access to books in our country.
Most book lovers agree that the pleasure of reading surpasses everything else.
Through an innovative concept based on a ‘travelling library’ or ‘books on wheels’ the founders of Walking BookFairs, Akshaya Routray (36), and Satabdi Mishra (34) want reading to reach all, with more accessible bookstores and libraries where people can read, understand the world, each other and their problems.
Highlighting that reading books is essential and vital for our society and not just a pleasurable activity or a pastime, they believe that it is only through reading that we can bring about any social change, and build a better world.
From backpacks with books to a library on wheels
Akshaya and Satabdi met at a bookstore. Once they got to discussing their love for books, they realised that there were a lack of bookstores, and libraries in many parts of India, especially in villages and many remote areas.
With insufficient money to start a bookstore and a library of their own, they pooled in the little money they had, bought books with it, put them in their backpacks and walked around to display the books at bus stops and footpaths.
They chose places where people from villages or towns could look at books, read and buy them at a discount. This was how Walking BookFairs was born in Koraput, Odisha in 2014.
“We carried books in our bags and walked to villages and towns and met people who had no access to reading. Laying them out on the pavement, we gave people who might have felt intimidated about entering bookshops an opportunity to take a look,” says Satabdi.
Pleasantly surprised with the overwhelming interest people showed in books, they decided to travel to different parts of Odisha. “We decided to reach out to more people in other parts of the state too, but it was difficult to carry books in a backpack or box and travel in crowded buses.” she shared.
With help from a few friends, Akshaya and Satabdi bought a second-hand Maruti Omnivan and began travelling across the state displaying books in public places. With this, Walking BookFairs – the travelling bookshop and library was born. Donating books to communities and government schools for them to open up libraries of their own, the duo then covered all 30 districts of the state, a distance of 10,000 kilometres.
Another milestone was reached when Walking BookFairs opened its physical bookshop in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, in 2015. Akshaya and Satabdi, the owners are also the only staff the bookstore has. Satabdi is the ‘pilot’ of the Walking BookFairs bookmobile and drives the travelling bookstore.
Bringing a bookstore to you
To get this dream going, in December of 2015, Akshaya and Satabdi decided to embark on bigger journey scaling the length and breadth of India. With a newer and improved version of their previous van, their aim was to make books accessible to every person in the country through a tour titled ‘Read More India – 2015.’
This free library stocked with both fiction and non-fiction books, nearly 4,000 in number, also doubled up as a bookstore that offered a 20 percent discount on all books. “Our aim is to reach everybody. Even the poorest farmer in the remotest village in India should also get an opportunity to look at a book, and be able to afford one.” says the duo.
They began their journey in early December 2015 from Bhubaneswar stopping at schools, colleges, book fairs, residential colonies, public spaces, anywhere they could park, opening their ‘book-truck’ to conduct public book displays. People could browse and read books for free, and also also buy them at a discount.
In three years of its existence, Walking BookFairs has covered 20,000 kilometers across 20 different states meeting hundreds of people, ranging from writers to book lovers to first-time book buyers.
Challenges along the way
The biggest challenge the duo faced was the fact that people did not understand the importance of reading books beyond textbooks and also that there were not enough bookshops or libraries anywhere in India, primarily for people who live in smaller towns and villages who are interested in books but they do not have access to them.
“It was very disturbing. Beyond certain urban centres, bookshops and libraries were almost non-existent. We found big international schools without libraries. We found big universities where students do not read anything beyond their course curriculum. We need more libraries than shopping malls, but the reverse is happening.” they share.
Today, the focus is more on textbooks for marks and degrees to get jobs in life. Akshaya and Satabdi hope this initiative encourages and inspires people everywhere to read more storybooks.
Another challenge reading can help overcome is change in mindsets. "We see so much happening around us, things like intolerance. It happens because people don't read. Reading books opens your mind and allows you to appreciate different thoughts.” says Akshaya.
Their ultimate goal is not selling books but to engage people in conversations about the importance of reading with all the books both at their store and truck open for people to browse and read for free at the venue.
An attempt to keep the love for books going
Apart from a travelling library, Walking BookFairs also runs an independent simple bookstore in Bhubaneswar where many school children and students come to browse through books and read books for free because they cannot afford to buy books.
"We give 20-30 percent discounts throughout the year because our store is simple and we don't have many expenses. We don't have air-conditioning and use solar power." says Satabdi.
Unfortunately, Akshaya and Satabdi have been facing many challenges to run the bookstore and sustain their work. “The number of people who read books and buy books from a physical bookstore is very small in a place like Bhubaneswar.”
In an attempt to keep their bookstore alive for the next one year and support daily maintenance, Walking BookFairs has taken to raising funds through crowdfunding. Contributions can help provide logistics support for electricity, water, manpower, rent and new books for the library. It can help young students in the city read books for free and also help Akshaya and Satabdi travel and reach out to more people encouraging them to read.