Is it a bookstore? Is it a cafe? Is it an event space? It’s Atta Galata, which, like its name, is always exciting. You can browse for books without having to tiptoe! Run by the creative, hugely gutsy Lakshmi and Subodh Shankar, this is the “bookstore for the reader, by the reader,” as Subodh puts it. Atta Galata turned seven on April 1 and has, over the years, emerged as a platform for creativity of all kinds, whether you want to express or imbibe. Lakshmi and Subodh talk to Darshana Ramdev about their extraordinary journey.
"Wanna buy a bar?" Made famous by countless sitcomes, "Wanna buy a bar" is a familiar urban refrain for aimless youths. For Lakshmi Shankar, owner at Atta Galata, however, no tale is complete without a twist. "Let's start a bookstore," she would tell her husband, Subodh, from time to time. When they returned home from a stay in Singapore, she asked her favourite question once more: "Let's start a book shop." This time, Subodh said yes.
Nestled away in its first floor hidey-hole in a busy side lane in Koramangala, the average visitor's first impression of Atta Galata is one of pleasant bewilderment. This is perhaps, one of the only places in the city where copies of Ponniyan Selvan, poetry by Bhartiyar and Kannadasan fly off the shelves. It's heartenig to see at a time where books are on the decline, regional books even more so. Youngsters come bounding up the stairs asking for Tamil books for their grandparents and Lakshmi, a lover of Tamil literature, is always happy to help.
Rows of books line the walls and a little cafe flanks the farthest end of the store. Its proprietor, the curly-haired, bespectacled Lakshmi, bustles about the place, shifting furniture (and its hapless occupants) around and generally making her sometimes stern presence felt. "My daughter always laughs at how I push visitors around," laughs Lakshmi, who was, at the time of this interview, driving her teenager to Gokarna. "I like to stick to the idea that it adds to the ambience!"
"I asked Subodh if he would run the cafe and he agreed," says Lakshmi, who decided she needed another, more gregarious hand on board. "I'm not much of a people-person but Subodh is extremely easy to talk to," she explains. This was of the essence: They began Atta Galata, as Subodh puts it, "Without short, medium and long term missions and visions. We were readers who wanted a place where other book lovers could come and feel happy." A three-pronged approach with books, a cafe and a lineup of events seemed the most balanced. "I asked Subodh over and over - 'Will you feel bad later?' He's a software person and here I am, talking about buns and yeast!" Subodh was a sporting partner and took on the challenge at once.
Seven years ago, on April 1, Atta Galata opened its doors to the public. The year prior had been spent conducting what Lakshmi describes as a series of "mundane but necessary" tasks. Without a background in books or business, they began with blank slate. "What does a bookstore actually do? What do they stock? What percentage of the book's price do we receive? These were the things I had to learn," says Lakshmi. This meant traipsing to publishing houses, making contacts and zeroing in on authors. "I"m glad I did it, though. I became a familiar face. By the time Atta Galata opened, they all knew the 'crazy lady who wanted to start a bookstore'!" says Lakshmi, who, despite her rather serious exterior, has a quietly riotous sense of humour.
Soon, Atta Galata became a regular fixture at literary festivals. Their store at the BLF each year sees sales hit the roof with Kannada and regional literature finding exemplary demand. Lakshmi adds, however, that this is where the excitement tends to peak. "We have younger authors as well and they do well at the festivals. The classics, however, always have their readers. Usually older people looking for a few moments of nostalgia."
Their first event was the launch of a children's book. "They sent their author to us very bravely. I felt quite sorry for the author because only five kids showed up!" It was a rocky start, with challenges that would manifest several times over the next few years. "It takes about three years to find your balance," Lakshmi remarks.
People of all ages began to troop into the space: "They all look a little puzzled, even to this day, about what Atta Galata actually is," Lakshmi remarks. "I quite like that!" The college students make straight for Subodh's cafe, where they appear perfectly content without a standup gig, live music or anything else to anticipate: a phenomenon that continues to mystify Lakshmi. "Once in a way, a kid walks up to me and says he bought a book. I don't know whether to be wary of this or keep it going!"
There seemed to be no shortage of amateur poets at the store, and all of them were given the room to read their work. "We decided to do something more serious," says Lakshmi. That was the start of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, the third edition of which will take place this August. "Finding sponsors is very hard, nobody wants to give you money!" They sought the advice of Shinie Anthony, who said, "Just take the plunge." “We have a great team, who is happy to stay in the background and make sure everything is in place. It’s a tough journey but it helps to have people who want to take it with you.”
“We had a man who wrote nano poetry,” Subodh exclaims. The techie in him was thrilled to find a poet who wrote in binary code. “His company had printed it on their chips, which you can see with an electron microscope,” he recalls. When Prasad, the poet in question, arrived to launch his book, he had no audience. “This is part of it, though. Even so, there is so much creativity in this city and putting yourself out there takes guts. I’m glad to see it happen.”