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Photo credit: Akshaya Bahibala, Instagram.

An interview with author, poet, publisher and bookseller,
Akshaya Bahibala

By Amrit Amlan Pattanaik and Apoorva Saini

1 June 2024

Akshaya Bahibala is the co-founder of Walking BookFairs, an independent bookstore and publishing house. Akshaya has written four books in Odia. His latest and first in English Bhang Journeys is a non-fiction book about his and other people's experiences and perceptions on the farming, distribution and consumption of marijuana in his home state Orissa. When he isn’t travelling across India, he lives in Bhubaneswar with his partner Satabdi (co-founder WalkingBookFairs) and friend Malu and their cats.


In this interview, ​he shares how the Walking BookFairs bookstores came about, the many ups and downs of their literary journey over the last ten years, the role and need of more bookstores in Indian cities across the country, their experience of participating in the World Booksellers conference at Sharjah, UAE, his thoughts on formal education and finding work that ignites ones passion, and among other things, an upcoming course for anyone interested in opening and running a bookstore.

1. Tell us about your lives before Walking BookFairs. Where are you from, what were you doing professionally, and how did you two (Akshaya and Satabdi) meet?

Before Walking BookFairs I used to work at Oxford bookstore in Bhubaneswar for almost three and a half years. Towards the end of 2013 I met Satabdi at the bookstore. This is when we started discussing books and society, and then decided to do something on our own to take books to places. I quit my job in December 2013 and a month after that we started Walking BookFairs. During this period, Satabdi was on a break from an advertising job to look after her child. 

2. You first started as a travelling library to reach people who do not have access to libraries or bookstores. In the initial years, you hiked to remote places with backpacks full of books and eventually turned an old ambulance into a bookstore/library on wheels. You were setting up on the streets, next to a cobbler or a tea stall, in public spaces. Could you tell us what motivated you and draw us a detailed picture of that 35,000 (plus?) kms journey across India, including the people and communities you met?

When we started in January 2014, we did not have a vehicle. We started in Koraput, in a place called Similiguda, taking books in our backpacks and displaying them on footpaths and roadsides for people to have a look, read and buy books. After a couple of months in Sunabeda, Similiguda and Koraput we somehow managed to buy a second-hand Maruti Omni ambulance with the help of my friends. We converted that ambulance into a small travelling book fair, put more books in the vehicle and took it around Koraput. Then we moved back to Bhubaneswar and continued our trips around Odisha for consecutive years from 2014 to 2016. In between we also started a small book shack near Kalinga hospital in Bhubaneswar and continued there till end of 2015 before relocating the shop to a new place in 2016.

After this, we thought of getting a bigger book truck to expand our trip to take books around India. We thought that we would need a small campaign, or maybe many campaigns to spread awareness about books and in 2016, we made this book truck and started our tour called Read More India. We decided that we will convert it into a library-cum-bookshop where we display books for a day or two where people could browse, read, talk about books, and buy if it is possible for them. 

We travelled around India and met thousands of people during the journey who were interested in books. Some of them wanted to be writers, some wanted to be poets, some came just because they loved books. We also met other kinds of people-some of them asked us to not park our vehicle, at times there was police harassment, and sometimes people are just not pleased with your presence. It is just not about the trips we did around India or Odisha; it is also about the people we meet regularly in our bookshop. If you put them all together it can be a nice non-fiction work around bookshops. Though there are plans, I have been busy with my book Bhang Journeys and other books I am working on. Hopefully one day we will be able to do it.


3. Do you have physical or digital maps of the places you visited? Did you keep diaries? In what ways did you document the journey?

When we travelled initially, we did not have digital maps, we had very basic phones and we depended largely on physical maps. We had a phone with internet but we mostly depended on physical maps and asking people about roads and directions.  through small towns was challenging where maps often do not work and internet connectivity is limited. So, we depended mostly on people, meeting them and talking to them, to know further about the geographical details.


We took more than five to ten thousand photographs to document the journey. We shot videos as well, we have written and maintained small diaries but mostly it was pictures that we clicked during our trips. We had thought of putting them together which somehow has not worked out but the material is there with us. We would love to write about our experiences someday.


4. Do you still drive across cities, or has that changed after the opening of your stores? Tell us about the transition from being on wheels to setting up the bookstores in a place. When did you decide to make Walking BookFairs a long term project and fully commit to it? What are your key support systems to keep it functional?

Honestly, we do not travel much these days unless required to. We do not have our book truck anymore; all the travel could not help us break even with any marginal monetary profit. 

We put together a physical bookshop because we needed a base and since travelling is very expensive, selling books from a book truck on tours would not cover the sustenance cost. That is why we thought of having a physical space and an address as well, where you could meet people every day and do small book events from time to time. Even when you talk about a travelling bookstore, it requires physical space. When the vehicle itself is a bookstore it also needs space for parking. It has always been a question of space. 

It was not an experimental project, we both read a bit and we like books which can shake the society a bit. We kept books which we felt were necessary, especially literature which we believe has the power to transform several things in society. We wanted to do this, so we did it.


Whatever buzz we could create in the last ten years, we would like to believe has impacted people’s relationship with bookshops in a tiny way. It is difficult to assign a tangible number on how much has changed and how much the bookshop has influenced people or this is what we have achieved. We managed ten years and we would love to do another ten years but sometimes we feel that we are getting tired and the takers of physical books at a bookshop are still very less to break even, people just want to buy books online. As a bookshop you need to keep changing your strategies to survive for the next two-five years, like now many bookstores charge for events and so on. We have never charged people for our events; all our events have been free. Maybe we are old, we are not at the same pace as the market is, Now book reviewers get money from reviews, we have not charged writers to put their books on display, several book shops have started doing that. 

We have managed to survive because of very good friends and genuine readers who have always been cannot sustain as an independent bookstore without such support. 

We did not stop after the opening of the bookshop; it changed just after the pandemic. In 2018-2019, we did one India tour called 'Poems on the Road' but after that it was very difficult for us to make any money because the sponsorship that we could manage for the tour was meagre. It was almost impossible for us to make enough money to pay back the vehicle loan that we had taken. So, we decided that it is better to let go of the travel idea and concentrate on the physical bookshop and since then we have been focusing on the Bhubaneswar store and now the new one in Cuttack. We did a 35000 kilometres tour then and now let others who are interested and aided with resources do it and explore further on their journeys. 

5. How many branches does Walking BookFairs have currently? If we are not wrong, at some point you were lending books at Rs.30 a day. What was your revenue model back then, and how has it changed over the years?

Currently we have two bookshops in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. No, not thirty bucks per day, we ran it in collaboration with Harper Collins for a year when the publishing house had put in a bit of money and the library was free for public, followed by a free membership by us for a year, and then the subscription was around hundred rupees per month but it never worked out as we could not find many members. People would often come to us and say, we do not want to use it for a month, we want to use it for a day, can you take ten rupees or so. But free libraries work out in a certain way when there is involvement of NGOs and there is funnelled funding which both of us would not like to do.

6. How do you select and curate the books in your bookstores? Have you ever curated fiction books where the narratives are set in different cities or where cities and towns make appearances as characters? Does such curation help to gather a better footfall for the store, attracting regular customers and readers? 

Regarding the selection of books, we thought why not take some Odia books in Odisha but since many people these days aspire to read in English, we also stacked English books. During the India tour, it was primarily English titles along with some Hindi books. It is difficult to have books of all languages spoken in India and sourcing them for display though we would have loved to do that. Because of the limitation of space, we primarily curated books in English for children and adults, mostly fiction and an assorted collection of non-fiction.

We tried to get books from different areas, we tried to get books by Sahitya Akademi awardees, we tried to get books from different writers and poets based across India but like I said it was a small book truck which could only carry 3000-4000 books and you need to have multiple copies. We tried our best to keep whatever was available in the market, whatever the publishers had. It was generally English fiction but not specifically about a city or town. We tried to accommodate as many Indian English fiction writers as possible in our bookshops. We took more than 300 copies of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s Adivasis will not Dance with us on tours which was a big number to order.

To curate fiction based on cities and towns, one needs to have those works around. Old towns like Puri, Cuttack or Bhubaneswar do not have many published stories around them. You need to have at least fifty to hundred books from each town, discussing the rivers and streams, lanes and roads, shops, people, and the everyday things happening in these places. Why is it that you must have writers and poets come from outside and write about your towns all the time? Every month one work can come from the state, discussing art, culture, politics of the places. There are only a handful of works in Odia, but in English I do not see at all. Almost hundred years back, Fakir Mohan Senapati wrote against dogma and the cults, but I do not see any such works happening now. Why are we not documenting the lives and times in our state is a question that we may need to engage with.

7. Your Instagram series ‘Publishers, Bookstores, Readers, and the Indian Society’ encourages literary discussions, and even opening of new bookstores. Tell us what you envision through this initiative. How has the response from publishers and writers been like? Does that association help in building more sustainable reading communities? 

The idea was to share our everyday journeys as curators of books at a travelling bookstore and later as an independent bookshop while reaching out to like minded people. It would be nice to see more people doing it but sadly we have not come across anyone committed so far who would do a two to three months tour on a book truck across states in India or open a curated bookstore in the state. Everybody wants the limelight that you get when you travel on such tours and the media attention as well which ends up offering a wrong impression of quick success and fame. That is why for the last couple of years we have tried not to give many interviews. People think that if you do something like this, you would get that mileage but honestly, we are yet to meet people who are passionate, who want to do a book truck and go around 10000-20000 kilometres. In the last ten years, I have met so many people who wanted to do it but I have not seen a single person who could even plan a 2000-5000 kilometres trip with an intent to make books accessible in remote places. We use our social media pages to reflect on our journeys and discuss books and related events.

Many people are still buying books from us and supporting us. We only wish the publishers look beyond metros and big cities, and reach independent bookshops in small towns and villages. We would be happy if more people would have access to books, they read and talk about life and society and that is what books can do as part of a continuum to further conversations in society. The day people start thinking that books are equally essential, more bookshops will survive. Maybe now it is changing; a lot of young people are doing reels with books these days which I hate bearing the sight of but perhaps that is how one can sell books!


8. In 2023, Walking BookFairs was invited to the world’s first ever booksellers conference in Sharjah, UAE. What happened in this conference, and in what ways did it help you? 

We went twice to the World Booksellers conference. In 2022, I was invited for a panel discussion about book stores where I met many people from the industry. They spoke about publishers not putting in a lot of effort, not working with booksellers directly in small towns. You meet booksellers from around the world, from Russia, Germany, United States where folks share their bookselling experiences, independent publishing experiences, stories about their bookstores and the kind of events they organise periodically which is unique. It was like meeting fellow workers from the industry who are also into the same trade. They were cross-cultural interactions around the world of bookselling. It is a nice thing to happen, but it requires a lot of money that is why a place like Sharjah can afford to do it. Our state book festivals do not organise such events, though I would wish to see them happen here sometime.

9. In your TED talk, one of you mentioned a college degree and formal education could be limiting to what one might actually want to do in life. What are your thoughts on how our society looks at the idea of career and growth? Both of you together, have put an idea to work that many only dream about. How important is collaboration for an independent bookstore to survive? 

In the talk we were talking about an unhealthy competitiveness in society. People who do not score good shouldn’t be made to feel that they will never get worthwhile opportunities.I also did not have a degree but I managed to co-own a bookshop with Satabdi and now together we have two stores. Everybody said that if you are not a degree holder, you can not do this and we have changed that conventional notion around career for ourselves. For instance, everybody tells you that if you do not have a degree in literature, you can not write a book. I believe, if you have a story to tell, you can write a book, maybe the language and flair can be different, but you can do so if you are passionate about the same. 

Collaboration is often required so that writers, publishers, readers, even vloggers can come together. For us it is not very easy to collaborate because we both find the process difficult, however we acknowledge it is essential. In the past, we have collaborated with several publishers such as Harper Collins, Pan Macmillan, and Speaking Tiger Books, with so many writers who come and do events in our store. We have collaborated with more than seventy-nine people and published a book and we have collaborated with fifteen writers and managed to come out with an anthology of short stories. These are all collaborative efforts which are essential to do from time to time. 

10. Last year, you also announced a bookselling course. Who is that course meant for and how can one apply? 

Though we had decided to do it last year, I have been busy with my book and have not been able to give time to the same. When I was working at a bookstore, I did not find any mentors. Nobody told me that working as a data entry operator you can also learn things related to the trade, open your bookstore, and grow in the industry or you can write a book and do publishing. There is no formal education around it and nobody is there to guide you. Since I worked as a data entry operator, as a manager and bookseller and I created a bookshop along with Satabdi, we both thought of sharing our experiences with others that we have gained in the last decade of being in the industry and tell many young people that here is another vocational opportunity they can consider. As far as target audience is concerned, we did not have anybody in mind particularly.

When we talk about the city, we talk about hosting the Hockey world cup, of being a sports capital, having one of the oldest temples but imagine a place where you keep all your great minds together. Bookstores are these places where the great minds of the world live together and if you do so, if you have a beautifully curated space with all these minds cohabiting, imagine what it can represent. It can be the face of the city, the literary side of the city merits attention from the institutions and individuals. Many towns in Odisha or in India that we have visited do not have artistically done, tastefully creative spaces and what about a bookstore with all the beauty in it, and the books with thousands of arts in themselves like the covers, the designs, the powerful and thought-provoking writing in them. Sadly, many people do not understand this, everybody talks about how much money it makes. You have five-star hotels, international airports but you do not have a beautiful bookstore. 

11. How integral do you think are bookstores in the identity and making of a place? Which are some of your favourite bookstores in other cities? 

I don't really know how to answer this. Wherever you see the owners are working and they are the workforce behind the bookstores I like them. I do not like bookshops which are run by workers and the owners are not to be seen. Most of the bookshops I have come across are run by employees, very few are managed by the owners themselves who have been working for more than decades and they still want to continue it. They have created everything from scratch on their own. For instance, in our Bengaluru branch which we had to shut down, all the bookshelves were built by me. That kind of connection I wish to see in small independent bookstores, including making furniture or designing spaces in harmony with some natural elements such as adding plants or creatively doing the displays, done by people who run them. If the shops have a distinct appearance I like them, if they are industrial with the same kind of things you see across, it brings visual monotony which I detest.     

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Guest interviewer: Amrit Amlan Pattanaik

He is a Doctoral Research Fellow in Film Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani Hyderabad Campus. Currently, he is working on the Social History and Narrative Formations of the Alternative Cinemas of Odisha. He is a former Erasmus Fellow to the Metropolitan University of Budapest and has taught Mass Communication and Media studies at several educational campuses in India. He has created and curated alternative media content for the art and travel industry through various workshops and residencies. His research and teaching interests include alternative film cultures, media archaeology, documentary photography, graphic fiction and non-fiction.

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