For the love of old books

Looking for sellers of rare books in and around Lahore’s Urdu Bazaar and finding out their trade secrets

For the love of old books

In a small and dimly-lit Urdu Bazaar Lahore shop, stacked with old and new books of all types, sits Muhammad Qasim with a ballpoint placed on his right ear and a writing pad in his hand. He represents Kitab Wadi Publishers in Lahore and supplies books on demand to individual buyers, educational institutions, research organisations and government departments. Apart from this, Qasim has an interest in trade of rare books that helps him earn some extra bucks.

Right in front of him on the floor lies a pile of old books that two vendors have just brought to him. They claim these books are rare and they have collected them from a scrap go-down during their recent visit to Peshawar. They share it with him that the inheritors of an affluent booklover had sold off this stock to the go-down owner after his death as they were no more interested in maintaining the library at home.

Qasim picks up the books one by one, looks at the title pages and information printed inside, turns the leaves, examines the condition in which they are, takes down notes and puts them on the side. By the time the whole exercise finishes, he has selected four books that he wants to show to their prospective buyers. He has done this in the past as well and got premium price from the right people. There is a special though limited clientele for such books and not everybody can realise their value or afford to pay the price demanded for them.

Qasim maintains his list of passionate booklovers as well as keeps other national and international dealers of rare books in the loop. Whenever he gets hold of something significant, he circulates the details and on most occasions gets good offers. Similarly, other dealers with valuable stuff in their possession share the details with him and seek his help in reaching out to the right people.

There are several others like Qasim who deal in rare books and are always ready to collect these. Some have even managed shops for decades and accommodate walk-in customers as well. However, this trend is changing fast, especially after the advancement of communication technologies. Now different players in the supply chain remain connected through whatsapp, email and save unnecessary overheads required for maintenance of shops, rent payments and staff salaries.

The question here is as to what makes a book rare and valuable in this niche market. The answer comes from Qasim who says that being old is not the only criteria as many such books were printed in huge numbers centuries ago and are still easily available. On the other hand, he says, first editions of popular books, copies with original signs of authors, scarce and out-of-print books, books published on unique occasions, manuscripts, artistic renditions of works of literature, old books with covers and dust jackets in good condition are among those that fetch good price.

Apart from personal libraries being the sources of these books, these have been obtained from binding houses known as daftari khanay, the printers with unsold copies in their possession, recoveries made during digging in areas like the Walled City Lahore, removal of debris at different locations and imported lots of old and used books. The copy of Tareekh-e-Lahore signed by its author Syed Latif was one such discovery. It carried a high price tag.

Zahid Hussain, a resident of Kashmiri Bazaar, Lahore, tells TNS that the binding houses located in this area would keep one or two copies of all books that reached them for binding, as souvenirs. This way their collection kept expanding but when they were shut down or they moved to new places, these copies were discarded. Ultimately, they reached the market where they were valued highly by the affluent book collectors and rare books’ dealers. "Kashmiri Bazaar was the publishing hub of the city until the business moved to today’s Urdu Bazaar after the Partition," says Hussain.

Qasim from Kitab Wadi narrates details of a transaction that left him regretful for having quoted a low cost for a high-in-demand book. He received the image of the title page of the book Life and works of Abdul Qadir Bedil authored by Dr Abdul Ghani and published by United Publishers, Lahore in 1960, via email from Afghan Shah Muhammad Books Company based in Kabul, Afghanistan. After a struggle of a couple of days, he found a stock of around 50 books available with Sheikh Mubarak Ali Publishers, Mozang Road, Lahore. These books were lying there, off the shelf, for quite long. Qasim bought these for Rs150 per copy and sold them to the Afghan buyer for Rs500 per copy. Some time later, while browsing the internet, he found the book being put on sale for $219 per copy on as well as the website of his Afghan buyer.

The old and rare books shops have been there for quite long and Siddiqui Rare & Antique Books on The Mall, Nazeer Books in Dharampura Bazaar and Hero Books on Pratap Street Anarkali have been the most frequented by booklovers. The shop of Malik Ijaz in Jinnah Super Market, Islamabad has also attracted them in large numbers. But with the proliferation of websites and online channels, even those individuals who have no interest in rare books and expertise in the field are entering the field.

Ali Rasikh, a businessman with interest in poetry, is always on the look out for classic poetry collections signed by the authors. His contact number is with all major shop owners and individuals, dealers and vendors dealing in rare books. The day one such book arrives in one bookshop, he is contacted. Rasikh says there is a scope for bargaining as the sellers also know it is not easy to find a buyer other than them.

Shahzad Ali, the co-owner of Hero Books says he has moved to Karachi where he is marketing their collection. He shares that his father used to have a World War veteran as an employee who would write to international organisations about the books they had in stock. "It would take a long time to do that, and identifying a rare book and putting a price tag on it were not easy jobs. But today every other person can post images of any book online, unilaterally declare it rare and put any price tag on it." This, he says, definitely distorts the market and does not augur well for the business. is one such online marketplace for new, used, rare and out-of-print books from all over the world. Search can be made by the help of keyword, title, author, ISBN or publisher. One can have the idea of prices for their books from their website.

The high-value books that Ali claims to have in stock include the 11 volumes of The Story of Civilization, Hikayaat-e-Saadi printed in 1825, some autobiagrphies (first editions) and copies of Quran written in gold.

Nuskha Hae Wafa, published in 1984 from London by Khawaja Shahid Hussain soon after the death of Faiz, Dewan-e-Ghalib published in Berlin by Dr Zakir Hussain in mid-1920s and renditions of Dewan-e-Ghalib in the form of Murraqa-e Chughtai and Naqsh-e-Chughtai have also been among the rare books high in demand.

For the love of old books