I visited the Delhi Book Store today – reputed to be the largest book store in Asia - and what a strange experience that was.

I had read that the Delhi Book Store stocked many books that were not available in other countries, so I thought I would check it out to see what books they might have on tropical horticulture. Their website says they have 99,000 titles on display in a 20,000 sq ft showroom on five floors, so I was expecting to see a flashy store-front like a Borders or a Kinokinuya. But it is located in a grey and very unimposing building in a busy backstreet of Darya Gani (see photo below), about 10-15 minutes in a taxi from the centre of Delhi, which you would never guess was a book store but for the sign on the front of the building.

Inside, the place looks much more like a book store, although the ground floor felt more like a library with chairs and tables for reading:

My first surprise was to discover that I was the only customer. It was late morning, so I would have expected to see many more people in the store (although there were plenty of staff about). The two lower floors were devoted to medical books – tens of thousands of titles on everything from brain surgery to parisitology. Some of the titles I saw were on very obscure topics such as 'Intestinal Anisakiasis in Japan' (which I gather is something you get from eating infected fish in Japan) and 'Percutaeous Lumbar Discectomies'.

I asked one of the staff where the titles on tropical horticulture were, and one of them took me up to the third floor and handed me over to another staff member. There were no elevators, so we walked up some narrow marble staircases which were stacked with thousands of books against the wall. I guess they must have run out of storage space elsewhere in the store. In any other country that would be regarded as a fire hazard – but hey this is India!

The sales guy on the third floor explained that they did not have any Indian books on horticulture (which was really what I had come for) because all their titles were imported, but showed me what they had. I discovered a few interesting titles that I had not seen before – a book on botanical orchids, an encyclopedia of mushrooms (an English translation from a French book) and a book titled 'Creative Propagation'. The sales guy who had been watching over my shoulder as I browsed the shelves said: “That's an excellent book on propagation, sir. I would highly recommend it to you”. I wondered whether he was a student of horticulture in his spare time, or whether that was just standard sales spiel that they were taught at the Delhi Book Store. I didn't feel entirely comfortable having him hanging around all the time whilst I was browsing, but at least it was convenient having him hold the books for me.

I also found in one of the other sections on the same floor a book on digital imaging that looked interesting, so I added that to the other three and then asked the sales guy how much the books were (none of them had price labels). This is where things got interesting.

The sales guy took me and the books over to a portly Sikh with a bushy beard, looking resplendent in a bright turban, sitting behind a large empty desk on the other side of the third floor, in front of what looked like one of those home altars with carvings of Indian gods and incense sticks burning in bronze urns (the smell of burning incense permeates the whole book store). He pulled out a pad of blank paper from a drawer in the desk, and after glancing at each book, wrote down on the pad: 1 x 400, 1 x 500, 2 x 750.

He tore off the top sheet and showed it to me. “These are the prices of the books. Okay with you?” The prices looked fine to me – much cheaper than I expected. Even the most expensive books (the book on botanical orchids and the encyclopedia of mushrooms) were only 750 rupees (about US$16) and I was sure that you would not be able to buy those for much less than US$40 anywhere else in the world. But what I was amazed about is how he quickly priced the books with only a glance at them. Did he know the price of the 99,000 books in the store in his head? Or was he employed as some sort of estimator to price them on the spot?

After saying I was fine with the prices, the sales guy took the books and the sheet of paper on which the prices were written over to a girl sitting behind a desk on the other side of the floor. I thought she was the cashier, but she only entered the details into a computer and printed out a list of the titles with their prices.

Then we had to go back down to the ground floor where it turned out the cashier was located. The sales guy accompanied me the whole time carrying the books, so I felt like I was getting very personal service. I paid for the books with my credit card, and the cashier then write out an invoice by hand and gave that to me with my credit card receipt. I thought that was the end of the sales process – but no, we had to then go to another desk near the entrance where another girl behind a computer entered the details of the books into her computer from the hand-written invoice (I am guessing that was some sort of inventory management system). After that the sales guy placed the books into a canvas bag and handed them to me, thanking me for my custom.

As I headed out to the street, I saw two other customers entering the store (the only ones I saw in the half hour or so I had been inside), so wondered how this place with all its staff, manual sales processes and enormous inventory made any money – but I suppose as labour is so cheap in India, they don't need to bother about the more modern sales practices that book stores in other parts of the world have adopted.

The Delhi Book Store is certainly bigger than any other book store I have seen in India. It's hard to tell if it really is the largest in Asia, because it's hard to compare with the big book stores in Singapore and Hong Kong which are more spread out. I suppose I could try counting the books next time I go into Kinokinuya in Singapore to see if they have more than 99,000 titles in stock.

(PS added 28 February: When I got home to Kuala Lumpur, I looked up the books on Amazon.com. The botanical orchids book was listed there for US$39.50 – so looks like I got some real bargains in India)

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