What this small Indian bookseller can teach Amazon.com

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

Last year Amazon announced that it was investing $5 billion to expand in India. My advice for its chief executive (and owner of The Washington Post) Jeffrey P. Bezos: you should also want to talk to Tarun Kumar Shaw. This is an Indian small businessman who knows his local market well–and has succeeded there by combining expertise, personal service and savvy cash management.

For more than 30 years, Shaw has been the go-to guy if you want to find a book in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). He runs a small book delivery service, with help from both his brother and son. He has gained a reputation for knowing how to procure just about anything–from American newspapers and science and literary journals to something on Swami Vivekananda or even a Sidney Sheldon novel (Shaw doesn’t judge).

“I love challenges,” he told the independent news service Scroll.in. “Even when ‘Satanic Verses’ was banned, I got several copies of the book. It took time, but I did it.”

More importantly, he has a deep understanding of how to navigate the windy and mysterious streets of the sprawling, 4.5 million-person metropolis to deliver the goods–a talent likely coveted by Bezos and his fulfillment team.

It was Shaw’s father, after working for an independent bookseller, who first realized years ago that, as the Internet grew and online marketplaces like Amazon dominated, the best days of the local bookstore were behind them. So father and son decided to take their business on the road, so to speak. “It was to reach out to the diehard reader, and his old clients, that my father decided to start this door-to-door bookselling service,” said Shaw.

The father-and-son entrepreneurs were savvy enough to adopt a just-in-time business model to keep their overhead low. “We only procure on demand,” Shaw told Scroll.in “Where is the space to stock books?”

Shaw’s strong relationships have kept many competitors at bay. But like the rest of us, his professional life is not without its challenges. In fact, his biggest comes from an unlikely source: the Bengali soap operas. Once many of his female customers might have retired after lunch with a “a novella, a literary magazine or even a mythological book.” Now…it is just junk TV, he complained.

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