Bunder Street is hot and busy in June. The narrow road is littered with paper and plastic string, crushed underfoot by a horde of parents and students searching for deals, discounts, and last-minute stationery. Stores lining the street are packed. A shopkeeper’s sweaty head pops out from behind a towering stack of notebooks, and rolls of shiny, brown wrapping paper.
Teachers are here on behalf of schools, buying stationery and craft supplies; while boxes of supplies including slates, ice cream sticks and stickers, lie scattered on the shop floor.
“Children like fancy pencil boxes, and stationery from China or Korea,” says Viji Bharat, as she shops for her school-going daughter. “But, I still like to buy the Nataraj pencils of our time.” According to a large banner hanging somewhere on Bunder Street, all the stationery is on sale.
These stores across the city are busier than ever now; its workers catering to the whims of hundreds of students and parents, eager to have the newest set of supplies as schools wait to reopen in the beginning of June. While the excitement around new pencils, colourful labels and crayons remain, life in the shops are now different.
“We are going to have a very busy few weeks,” says Suresh, owner of Suresh Stationerys, Sholinganallur. His store is stocked in preparation, with stacks of colourful pencil boxes and pens hanging from the ceiling. Hard, plastic exam pads are leaning against the walls, plastered with Ben-10 stickers and collages of BTS, the Korean boy-band — the latest fad of the season.
“Earlier, they would ask for Shaktimaan, Spiderman or Mickey Mouse, and now they want unicorns, BTS and Pop-it pencil boxes,” he says.
The hottest selling items this summer are colourful notebooks and pens. Brown paper used to cover notebooks continue to remain an ever-present item on the stationery list.
“Around ten years ago, many schools started ordering directly from wholesale stores,” says Jailany, owner of M J Stores, on Bunder Street. “They order notebooks, pens, pencils, slates, and chalks from us. All in bulk,” he says.
VSK stationery store has been a landmark in Sholinganallur for 31 years. Parents and students do not visit stationery stores in large numbers as they did even until a decade ago, says VSK Madhavan, owner of the store. “There is still an increase [in customers], but it is only five to 10% more. Everything including notebooks, pens and pencils are given by the schools themselves,” he says.
“If we have time, we end up buying supplies online as there are back-to-school sales,” says Divya Nair, a parent.
In order to adapt, stationery stores like VSK, have begun focussing on their photocopying and printing services. That brings in another avenue of customers at this time of the year: prospective college-goers and office clientele. At Bunder street too, shopkeepers have been selling office supplies wholesale through the rest of the year to remain afloat.
Bunder Street’s wholesale prices will always bring in schools and those who buy in bulk. There will always be the last-minute request that sets the parent’s teeth gnashing and their feet running to the closest local shop. Ultimately, it is the familiarity and accessibility of these neighbourhood stationery shops that keeps customers returning to them, year after year.