Digital books and the ongoing pandemic have impacted the business of bookshops. But those with rare collections of old books seem likely to survive
American novelist William Styron once said, “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” Sadly, in modern-day Pakistan, anything to do with books is becoming a ‘dying art,’ be it writing a book, reading one, or dealing in them. It has more to do with the emergence of other mediums that may or may not be ideal for the post-millennial generation.
Gone are the days when people would save their pocket money for old books and magazines that were easily available in the city. Be it the majestic Khori Gardens with their great collection, the diverse old books’ stalls in Sunday Bazaars and Regal Chowk, Saddar, Karachi; Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore, and selected shops that dealt in old books, it was like a book haven for those who knew their books.
Sadly, with the advent of technology, e-books and .pdf versions of already published books, purchasing books, especially old books, has become rare. On one hand, the shops that dealt in both old and new books are being replaced with banks, restaurants and shopping malls; on the other hand, the administration is making sure that such places either pay up or move out. The famous Sunday Bazaar in Karachi’s posh Defence area got obliterated long before the pandemic, whereas the Frere Hall book market continues to be on the good side; the bad side being the administration.
These were the places where you could venture out on a weekend, with your friends and family, and return with some gems of books. Politics, literature, humour, children’s books and classics, everything was available here if you had the eye to browse through the heaps of stacked books. Not only that, ardent fans could get their hands on olden magazines and haggle with the seller for a reasonable price.
The emergence of ‘other’ mediums has changed the game
Digital books have emerged as a strong competition. There are two kinds of digital books to talk about — one that are available in .pdfs or EPUB format and can be downloaded for free; you can read these on your mobile, laptop, or Kindle; and the other is still in the form of a book but must be purchased online.
With international seller Amazon making inroads into Pakistan, and Pakistan’s own websites such as Liberty Books and Readings selling books at normal and discounted prices, old books are available to the buyers. All major bookshops such as Welcome Book Port, Readings and Saeed Book Bank in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, respectively, have come up with updated websites that makes life easier for book lovers. But sadly, not for those whose livelihood depends on selling books.
All major bookshops such as Welcome Book Port, Readings and Saeed Book Bank in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, respectively, have come up with updated websites that makes life easier for book lovers. But sadly, not for those whose livelihood depends on selling books.
“Things will surely improve after the pandemic”
Ali Bhai of Old Book Shop, Clifton, Karachi, has been in the business for over 20 years now. He believes that the sale and purchase of new as well as old books have taken a hit due to the pandemic.
Speaking to TNS, he says that his biggest competition is not other stores of old books in the city but those selling pirated books. “There were a lot of old-book shops in our vicinity but they have literally closed shop due to Covid-19, and because of their inability to sustain.
Then there are those who have opened toy shops. Yet another few book sellers have moved to less posh areas.
The pandemic has definitely made the people appreciate online purchasing, free .pdfs and pirated books, but Ali is hopeful that real book lovers will return to printed books once the pandemic situation improves.
Talking about his collection, Ali says that at a time when people aren’t buying books, he hasn’t been able to add to his collection, like he used to do earlier. He also says that since travel is restricted, the stocks from abroad have not been arriving, which has further dented the business.
Ali blames the government for ordering to close shops at 8pm and imposing curfew at night time. This, he says, has killed whatever business he was generating. “People don’t venture out in summers until late in the evening. When the shops are closed, they opt for ordering books online which they can do anytime of the day,” he adds, ruefully.
Ali is surviving in the business on the strength of the new books as well as some of the old books that certain loyal customers keep returning to. He believes that people “will soon get fed up with reading books on gadgets. When that happens, I will be waiting for them.”
“Technology favours the brave”
Renowned sports journalist Rasheed Shakoor is an avid book lover. Since his job takes him on tours, he loves to go book-shopping. While speaking to TNS, he rejects the idea that with the advent of technology, things have gone bad for shops selling old books. “Technology favours the brave,” he declares. “Those [old bookshops] that have embraced technology, are doing extremely well.”
Shakoor says that the reader in him “began with cricket magazines and books, as a school kid. “Khori Garden in Old Karachi was my go-to place for that. My friend and I would spend our entire pocket money on books that were rare and not available in Pakistan. The shopkeepers had come to know us well, so they would keep stuff for us.
“After I became a journalist, my appetite for books only increased,” he adds. His pet book haunts today are Regal Chowk in Saddar, Book Ground in Gulshan, and Frere Hall in Clifton. “When we are on tour with the Pakistan cricket team, I look at it as an opportunity to buy books.”
Shakoor is also a regular buyer at Amazon UK and e-bay UK.
The writer is a print and broadcast journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]