It’s a hot Sunday morning in Bangalore when I make my way over to the silicon alley of India’s Silicon Valley. SP Road, officially Sadar Patrappa Road, is fondly known as Spare Parts Road.
I’m there to help a friend sell his 5-year-old Macbook Pro. For those of you who are unfortunately addicted to Apple products, you’ll know this is a laughable attempt. Like two wheelers, Apple products have the tendency to depreciate in value with each passing day.
Once we set foot on the road – my friend armed foolishly with a white Apple drawstring bag – we’re accosted by reverse hawkers. I call them that because this is the first time I’ve experienced someone pitching me to sell instead of buy.
We dodge a few guys and step into a large store that’s advertising computer repairs on a flashing screen. My friend pulls out his laptop and sets it on the desk. Turning it on opens up a screen that’s showing nothing but gray lines. The keyboard doesn’t really work. This store refuses us.
“Selling your laptop, madam?” another reverse hawker asks as we step out onto the street. I nod this time, and he takes us to a small store around the corner. There, a young man looks through my friend’s laptop, which thankfully has stopped showing those horrid lines.
I tell him that I won’t take a penny under 10,000 rupees (US$150), and that the Macbook was bought for 100,000 rupees (US$1500). He scrutinizes me carefully and scowls, “9,000 rupees (US$135).”
I try not to show my incredulousness that anyone would actually want to buy this piece of junk. I act thoughtful. “9,500 and that’s a bargain,” I say. He shuts the laptop and tells us to wait where we are.
We’re a little nervous about where he’s taken the laptop and fidget like two fish out of water sitting on plastic chairs, but his three friends who are lounging around assure us that everything will be alright.
Soon, the landline rings. “Madam, what’s your password?” My friend wracks his brain to come up with the code that will open the computer. Nothing works, so we’re thrust back into the madness of SP Road, led by the hawker’s skinny friend.
We end up at a small shop in an inner road where a man behind a counter is examining the laptop. This shop looks a bit more legitimate and has counterfeit phones on lit-up shelves. I spy a “Smamsung Gyalax”.
The lines on the screen are back, and all of a sudden the man thrusts the laptop back at us. “No good,” he says as he kicks us out of the store. In a desperate last attempt, my friend asks if he can sell the Macbook for parts. The hawker laughs, and his friends join too.
Now, we’re back in the murky waters of SP Road with no idea where to go. Another hawker stops us, this time a slightly older man who speaks Kannada, the local language. We tell him what we’re looking for and he leads us into a dark alley and up a spiral staircase. There’s another small store here, where men stand in front of keyboard and CPU-lined shelves.
The men ask to see the laptop. It’s still not cooperating and takes another ten minutes to turn on. We curse ourselves for having turned it off in the first place. They’re already shaking their heads at this point, and I can’t help but guiltily admit – “The s and the p keys are broken.”
This admission of honesty seems to work, and the hawker smiles at me knowingly. “Come,” he says, leading the two of us back onto the road and up another staircase.
Here, we’re offered comfortable chairs and glasses of filtered water. The laptop is whipped out and a man in a button-down shirt stares at it expertly. He pulls out a DVD and sticks it into the drive, which crunches and makes all sorts of weird noises before spitting it it back out. He shakes his head.
Somehow, the laptop has gotten itself together and turned on, which the store owner seems to appreciate. We make small talk while he clicks through the laptop.
“We don’t usually take Macs here,” he says. “Nobody really wants them. Give me a Dell and I can sell it off in a day.”
I point at a Macbook that’s on a faraway shelf and he nods. “That’s been sitting there for weeks.”
By this time, I’m losing hope, but he smiles at me. “Do you have the proof of purchase for this?”
“The proof of what?,” my friend pipes up.
This admission of honesty seems to work, and the hawker smiles at me knowingly.
“You know, the bill. So we know that it’s not stolen and won’t get us in trouble.”
This is a little bit of cautiousness that I don’t expect from Spare Parts road. It kind of ruins the unadulterated seediness of the journey, but I appreciate how methodical they are. I explain to him that this was bought in the United States five years ago, and that the bill is somewhere in a basement in the state of Washington.
He stays quiet, but doesn’t seem to want to push the envelope. “Give me your phone number,” he says. “I’ll call you if there’s any problem.”
He hands me a blank sheet of paper and a pen and asks me to write a letter saying that the laptop is mine. “Dear guys at the computer shop,” I start.
He nods, satisfied. This time I’m careful. “I’ll give you a bargain for 8,000 rupees ($120),” I say. He snorts. “The laptop in perfect condition wouldn’t be worth anything over 12,000 rupees (US$180). There’s a broken CD case and half your keys don’t work.” I fall silent. “I’ll give you 6,000 (US$90).”
By now, I’m thinking to myself that that’s pretty great considering we didn’t even expect to sell it when we first set out on our journey. I nod in agreement, and a man goes into the back to get six crisp 1,000 rupee (US$15) notes.
I take the wad and stuff it into my bag, and the hawker leads us down the stairs, waiting expectantly at the bottom. I hand him 500 rupees (US$7.50) and he smiles.
We step back out, and someone asks: “Selling a computer, madam?”
An answer for everything
Before the era of department stores, there was a time when shops that sold the same wares wanted to exist next to each other. Then, if a customer wanted to buy something – chandeliers, or clocks, for example – they would head over to that part of town.
That’s probably how SP Road was born. It’s cradled in the upper nook of India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and has everything from SD cards to cassette tapes to hard drives to arduinos.
They’ll cheat if you don’t know what you’re asking for.
A friend who runs a startup that detects water availability recounts his own journey on the road. “I went there to buy a Raspberry Pi [a tiny computer that plugs into computer monitors or televisions] so we could add sensors to our product. We googled where to find it in Bangalore and the only result was a small dot right on SP Road. We spent about US$30 on it.”
That was three years ago, but a simple Google search shows that sites like Amazon India sell it today for about the same price.
“I’d still go back,” says my friend. “You can bargain and feel out the product before you buy it.”
It’s more than just the physical touch of products that makes SP Road so popular.
The thousands (that’s my estimate) of offline stores have always had a stronghold over the customers that India’s ecommerce sites are trying to win over.
Alibaba sellers from China on Paytm too difficult to coordinate logistics with? Don’t worry, go to SP Road and you can find the same products. Looking for a used 2TB hard drive because new ones are too expensive? SP Road has got an answer. Need a wireless mouse now and can’t wait? SP Road’s your go-to guy.
It’s also an important part of the supply chain for cash-strapped startups.
Tech forums are abuzz with talks about SP Road. Indy811 from Tech Enclave says, “I recently bought the Asus RT-N66u for 13k from SP Road. Costs 14k on Flipkart.”
Verdanko Insights writes, “One would expect the Flipkart price to be comparable to the product sold in the market. Well, here we have a case where Flipkart is charging more than the street price asked for (5% VAT included) at SP Road, Bangalore.”
Of course, not all is perfect.
On Digit.in, there’s a thread where users chat about where to buy computer parts. When SP Road is brought up as the go-to spot, user Nvidia warns, “You have to be careful when you buy anything. All shops aren’t trustworthy. They’ll cheat if you don’t know what you’re asking for.”
When my colleague Harsimran Julka visited SP Road to buy a new laptop, he noticed an interesting trend. “Some sellers were packing their stuff into Flipkart and Snapdeal boxes,” he says. “They’re moving online to match the ecommerce boom.”
And, as a real-world testament to the workings of the tech industry, I spotted two women – among a mad rush of at least a million men – during the three hours I spent there.
Still, SP Road is a great representation of the can-do spirit of India’s tech scene. Small and medium businesses have always run the show, and whether ecommerce succeeds or not, the country will invariably find an answer for its electronic needs.