Maithili Appalwar


A 2024 prizewinner for her Lauder Capstone paper “Turning the Page: Unraveling the Strategies and Challenges Behind the Resilience of Independent Bookstores in India,” Maithili Appalwar (G24, WG24) discusses the process of writing a master’s thesis and how the research experience at Lauder has contributed to her professional development.

In her award-winning paper, Appalwar, a graduate of Lauder’s SAMENA (Hindi) Program, investigates how and why independent bookstores in India have flourished. Through fieldwork and interviews with booksellers and consumers throughout Delhi and Mumbai, Appalwar explores how independent bookstores transcend their commercial role to become cultural and community hubs, maintaining their relevance in a competitive and rapidly growing economy.

What led you to choose this particular topic?

As an only child with working parents, most of my childhood was spent in the company of books – so I’ve always been deeply passionate about bookstores. I believe that independent bookstores are so much more than places of commerce; they play a vital role in fostering literary culture, promote diverse voices, and serve as community hubs. During this research, I was especially interested in examining their resilience in the Indian context, where prior research was limited.

What was the most surprising or interesting finding from your research?

One of the most interesting findings from my research was that while Indian independent bookstores have been resilient through strategies like community engagement and experiential retail, their curated selections in India are actually less distinct from chain/online retailers compared to independents in other countries (like the US or Singapore).

Another surprising finding was the lack of new independent bookstores established in India in the past two decades, which I attribute to high entry barriers like real estate costs and unequal access to capital. This raises important questions about who controls the spread of knowledge in the Indian book industry, which I find fascinating and concerning. This concentration of epistemic power has significant consequences for the diversity and inclusivity of the Indian book market. When the voices and perspectives of marginalized communities are underrepresented in the bookselling industry, it can lead to a narrowing of the range of ideas, stories, and knowledge available to readers.

What were some of the major challenges you faced during your research and how did you overcome them?

One major challenge I faced was the limited geographical scope of my study. I conducted my fieldwork primarily in Delhi and Mumbai, where I interviewed owners/managers of 13 major independent bookstores and young readers (aged 18-35) across the two cities. Due to the project being self-funded, I could only cover these two cities, which may not represent the full diversity of India’s bookselling landscape. My study also did not include analysis of used bookstores, textbook stores, and informal book stalls, which play a significant role in the Indian market. Comparing Indian bookstores to those in the U.S. and Singapore may not have fully accounted for India’s unique cultural and economic factors. I tried to address these limitations by clearly stating them in my paper and suggesting directions for more comprehensive future research.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to students who are about to start working on their master’s thesis?

I would say pick a topic that you’re truly passionate about – if you have to write a bunch, you might as well make it worthwhile, and the only way it’ll be worthwhile is if you’re deeply curious about the subject. Also, start early – my advisor, Dr. Doherty-Sil, read two drafts before I submitted my final thesis. Not only did it help me fine-tune my paper, but I found her questions and comments thought-provoking.

Are there any resources or strategies you found particularly useful?

In terms of my specific research topic, I found analyzing indie bookstores’ social media presence on Instagram and conducting mini-case studies of notable stores to be particularly useful alongside interviews. These methods provided rich insights into the strategies and experiences of bookstores. More generally speaking, I used the Penn Library heavily for the literature review. The library website allows you to search by topic, author, etc. and Penn has free subscriptions to a large number of academic journals. I also used a note-taking tool called Obsidian – it’s great for annotating papers and keeping track of larger conclusions, especially as the body of work you’re analyzing grows larger.

In what ways has working on this research project contributed to your personal growth or professional development?

I think Wharton is incredibly focused on analyzing business in financial terms. And while that’s important, I think small businesses (around the world) are created with so much heart – I saw booksellers investing in ideas and inventories that did not always make them money. This fundamentally challenged my belief that the primary role of business is to create profits. While Amazon’s book-selling operations may generate impressive profits, I firmly believe that the world is enriched by the presence of independent bookstores that challenge this paradigm and prioritize cultural, intellectual, and social value creation. As I begin working in my family business, a publicly traded company, this project has served as a steadying reminder that financial metrics should not be the only focus. I want to define what success will look like for me within the company in terms of deeper ideas that encompass employee welfare and sustainable value creation for all stakeholders, rather than just growing the revenue and market cap. ■