An old business gets a new form to revive Kathmandu’s reading culture

Coffee at Anu Books set up
Coffee at Anu Books. Photo: Nasana Bajracharya

Amir Raj Thapa was in his school when he used to go to different bookstores to buy the then popular Wave magazine. One of the stores he visited was Anu Book Store in Lagankhel, Lalitpur. But, when he flipped through the magazines, he had never thought that one day he would be on the other side of the counter and running the very shop, some 25 years later. 

Thapa is today the curator of Coffee at Anu Books, a wing of Anu Books, located in Satdobato, Lalitpur. He has been instrumental in reimagining and reshaping the way the book shop operates today.  But, behind his ideas formulating and Anu Books’ history of over 35 years now and the manifestation of his ideas for the future.

Anu Books turning into Cofee at Anu Books is indicative of how old businesses are getting new forms in the dynamic city of Kathmandu to revive Kathmandu’s reading culture.

Changing times 

Coffee at Anu Books Satdobato
Coffee at Anu Books located in Satdobato. Photo: Nasana Bajracharya

A co-proprietor of Anu Books, Prabha Devi Maharjan got a stack of books from Ekta Books’ owner, who inspired her to start a new book store in Patan and become an entrepreneur. She hence started Anu Books in Lagankhel in 1986, naming it after her daughter.

“I have stories of how my father-in-law used to carry the books on his back to bring them from Ekta in Kathmandu all the way here,” adds Thapa.

When Anu Books first started, English books were not much sold or read in Kathmandu. But, after the multiparty democracy was introduced, the mid-1990s saw a literary boom; more bookstores opened in Kathmandu.

Anu Books hence expanded itself to Satdobato in 2014 and Bhotahity in 2016.

The boom was furthered by the people going abroad and returning with the books as well as the elite and affluent schools in the district that exposed students to British Council and other libraries. The social media boom and hype around the bookworm persona too helped in creating a surge in people’s reading habits. 

It has only been over six months since Amir Raj Thapa got involved in the business. At 40, he has left his previous jobs and is operating the Satdobato-based Coffee at Anu Books, full time, together with his brother-in-law and mother-in-law. Now, as the times changed, the family has transformed Anu Books into Coffee at Anu Books with a coffee shop, an event venue, a place to network and socialise and a haven for the book readers and students.

Coffee at Anu Books ambience
Different sections of Coffee at Anu Books include the book collection, a space to read and the cafe. Photo: Nasana Bajracharya

Power of the dream

Recently in Kathmandu, bookstores including a cafe in them and coffee shops integrating libraries have been a common phenomenon. Yet Thapa says his cafe was a manifestation of his decade-old experience, not him jumping on the bandwagon. 

Thapa says, “When I was studying in the US, I used to work in a library and get involved in all the departments there. I learned a lot about libraries and books there. Since it was my work, I used to spend most of my time around coffee and books. I realised a kind of community was fostering around me, which I had always wanted to bring to Nepal by establishing a similar cafe.”

When he returned to Nepal in 2012, Cafe Soma was the only store that served coffee and sold books. “But, it was not the same concept as I had dreamt of,” says Thapa, adding through his friend, he realised that he had been harbouring the idea of this bookstore decades ago and the new outlet of Anu Book Stores is the result of his dream.

His original idea matched that of his parents-in-law who ran the bookstore, and the brother-in-law who was a literature student and had already been exposed to such cafes with books during his travel. 

“When both my son and son-in-law [Thapa] suggested that we need to redefine the shop and integrate coffee into the shops, the idea seemed viable to me as I had seen the concept while I travelled too. We had the space, and the experience, so we started almost immediately,” shares Maharjan.

Stories are the priority

slam poetry event held in Coffee at Anu Books
A participant reciting her piece in a slam poetry event held in Coffee at Anu Books, Satdobato. Photo Courtesy: Amir R Thapa

Coffee at Anu Books gets readers from all over Kathmandu, but its main target group is the youth from the suburbs of Patan and it now wants to focus more on the influx of the youth coming in from Bhaktapur and connect them with books as well. 

Anyone who walks into the store gets the cosy reading space and reading tables. With a cafe at the store that features coffee and handmade local food dishes including thekuwa (a local Tharu food) and muffins (made of flour from Dolpa), the book lovers are also getting another reason to love this store and its ambience.

People can read a book from the shelf or bring their own. Apart from reading, visitors also get a chance to draw or paint and engage in various activities that are held in the cafe space. Aspiring artists and art students can even put up their works on the shelf and get their first sale. 

“Lately, people are searching for books released internationally and come or inquire here expecting to find books by the likes of Colleen Hoover. When Barack Obama’s A Promised Land and Michelle Obama’s Becoming launched, there was a surge. Other than that, people now seem more interested in motivational or self-help books,” shares Thapa. 

“But, though we could sell the idea of a reading space or a cafe, we want people to walk in with the purest interest of book and reading, so we have kept the books outside and cafe inside, and not the other way around.”

With Thapa’s intervention, Anu Books has also started getting a mix of international readers and travellers. “We want to continue setting up corners on different themes and for different communities who can come here, and either contribute to us or at least relate to them. We had a couple of Nigerians come here and hear Nigerian songs playing on the KEXP radio, some from the Tharu community come and see the food or the painting and even the LGBTQIA+ community who have painted and crafted their art. And, all of them have a nostalgic time here.”

The child-friendly space

reading session with children in Coffee at Anu Books
Children participating in a reading session held in Coffee at Anu Books, Satdobato. Photo Courtesy: Amir R Thapa

At Coffee at Anu Books, Thapa has also set up a space for children to conduct storytelling sessions. “Different schools and families sign up their children and then come here for a quick reading circle.”

In his attempt to continue expanding the impact and impression of Coffee at Anu Books, Thapa is looking for collaborations and planning events, festivals and programmes to keep the place vibrant. On the sidelines, Thapa is continuing another of his dream, to be a storyteller. Other than connecting different stories of different communities to the store, he is also narrating children’s stories every Sunday. 

“In collaboration with Katha4Nepal by Kathalaya, conducting and narrating stories through Sunday Funtale has been an absolute dream.”

He says the programme connects him with the children, and their constant love and feedback have given him a reason to know he is leaving some impact on the world.

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Bajracharya is a sub-editor at Onlinekhabar. She mostly writes on culture and nature.

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