Lahore Book City’s prominent Urdu collection and the mission to increase access to books are strong foundations to build upon, as the place begins to carve its identity in the city’s independent bookstores sector
We know from our experience of bookstores that George Orwell was right in referring to them as places one could hang about “without spending any money.” However, things appear a little too good to be true when a new bookstore is actually marketed as such. Add to it the offer of free books for bookworms on a budget, and it feels like “How I would get kidnapped” meme coming true that us readers are all too familiar with.
Who are they? What is their motive? Why have they opened a store in the middle of a pandemic when most bookstores are shutting down? These were some of my initial thoughts as I heard about Lahore Book City, a newly established bookshop-cum-library in Y Block, Defence.
Driven partly by curiosity, partly because of FOMO (fear of missing out), I decided to put my journalistic hat on and explore the place myself. The bookstore’s Facebook page advised booking a slot, but having received no response in a few hours, I called them up to inform about my arrival and set off.
Situated between a host of banks and clothes retailers in the commercial hub, the words Lahore Book City seemed a little out of place. This sense of entering into a world far removed from our everyday life was augmented as I walked down the entrance staircase to a large hall that appeared to offer it all: comfortable seating, books and coffee — staples of #bookstagram worthy stores nowadays.
What immediately struck me about their collection was the vast variety of books in Urdu. Ranging from novels by contemporary sensations such as Umera Ahmed and Hashim Nadeem, and classics such as Deputy Nazir Ahmed, to sections on History, Iqbaliyat, self-help and Islam, the store houses a large number of books that you would generally go all the way to Urdu Bazaar for.
While many of them are printed by Ilm-o-Irfan publishers, the people behind Lahore Book City, the store also features works by other publishers such as Sang-e-Meel and Ilqa among others. I felt this was a refreshing change in the Lahore bookstores sector which is mainly dominated by imported books, often dedicating only a shelf or two to local publications.
Moving clockwise, there is a round pedestal table showcasing Forty Rules of Love (by Elif Shafak), Islam and the Destiny of Man (Gai Eaten) and a few other books as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recommendations. This is followed by the imported books section which showcases a variety of English novels, children’s books, and books on politics and art among others. A few further steps take us to the snacks corner which was a little deserted at the time so I didn’t have a chance to taste anything. This brings us back to the entrance door, but it is what was almost behind it was what solved the mystery of free books. There was a whole shelf labelled as “free books.”
For the owners, it isn’t just a store but a mission to revive the reading culture, and if it means giving away some books for free, it’s a sadqa-i-jaaria (an ongoing charity)… In addition, their readers’ club offers the members’ families 50 percent discount on the purchase of books, again an attempt to ensure affordability.
“Are these books really free of cost?” I asked the store manager, who was free at the time.
“Yes,” he said, elaborating that they often witnessed how at times some people who visited the shop were not able to purchase anything.
“We do not want a bibliophile to go empty handed. We have this section right next to the door, so even if someone is unable to purchase a book, they can still select one to take home.”
“But, isn’t that a loss?” I asked, to which he replied that for them it wasn’t just a store but a mission to revive reading culture, and if it meant giving away some books for free, it was a sadqa-i-jaaria (an ongoing charity), and thereby an investment for the Hereafter.
In addition, he mentioned how their readers’ club offers the members’ families 50 percent discount on the purchase of books, again an attempt to ensure affordability.
Speaking about Covid-19’s effects on the business, he told me that while they were unable to hold any events and activities (such as Iqbal Day, he said) at this time, due to restrictions on public gathering, their online orders were going strong, to the extent that they sensed the demand for opening a physical store, despite the pandemic.
He was hopeful of how the place may be frequented by more people once the virus subsides and public gatherings can take place.
While I wished I had a chance to talk more, especially to the customers that had now started arriving at the store, it was time to go back.
On my way home, I wondered what it would be like a few years down the road: Will it be one of the thriving bookstores of Lahore or will it have to rely on ancillary products such as stationery and textbooks that are becoming increasingly common?
I do not have the answer right now, but I think the store’s Urdu collection and the mission to increase access to books are strong foundations to build upon as it begins to carve its identity in the city’s independent bookstores sector.
The writer is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Glasgow, UK