They went unwept, unsung

By Zubeida Mustafa

When a bookshop goes out of business and winds up, does one write an obituary? Not in our society. In the last few months three bookstalls of long standing have been closed down in Karachi. They went unwept and unsung. The last to fold up was Happy Bookstall on Inverarity Road (opposite Zainab Market) which had been catering to the needs of discerning readers for over 35 years.

London Book Company, which suffered its first blow two years ago when it closed its Tariq Road branch, is another casualty. In Ramazan, its branch in the neighbourhood of Uzma Arcade in Clifton also departed from the scene.

Another deceased is Modern Book Deals of Abdus Salam Akhtar which was marketing the National Book Foundation publications at one time. This was also on Inverarity Road.

What betrays our superficial values most is that many of the bookstalls that go out of business enter the garments trade. Happy Bookstall has been converted into Mr Fashion. Book Deals and London Books (Tariq Road) are also selling fabrics and garments.

Mushtaq Yusuf, the young proprietor of Happy, is paradoxically the saddest man today. He bitterly remarked, “Our people want to dress well and have an immaculate appearance, even though their souls remain barren.'” He was forced to change his business because, according to him. he has to earn a living.

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“Before I closed the bookstore, I was left with hardly any customers. Barely, five people would walk into my shop in a day. They generally did not buy anything apart from a copy of Newsweek, at the most,” says Mushtaq.

When the losses became unbearable and dead stock accumulated, Mushtaq had to give up the trade his father had so lovingly started.

And now? He says he gets on an average 55 people a day and quite a few of them do buy the garments he stocks.

Shams Quraeshi of Mackwin, who broke the tragic news of the closures to me, is even more bitter. “People are more interested in adorning their bodies than their minds,” he says.

Shams, who has been in the trade for over four decades, recalls the bookshops on Elphinstone Street at the time he opened his shop. He rattles off at least sixteen names which did roaring business on what is now Zaibunnisa Street and the adjoining roads. They include departed stalwarts like Greenich, Kitab Mahal and English Book House (which just moved over from books to boots!) Some, like Mackwin, left the retail business and are now only wholesalers.

Now there are only two retail booksellers in this area — Pak American and Thomas & Thomas. It is anyone’s guess how long they will last. Ahsan Jafri of Pak American admitted that he is under tremendous pressure from some jewellers who find the location of his shop very attractive. As it is, there are at least 100 jewellery shops in this area, he says.

Newly developed areas — Gulshan, Defence, North Nazimabad, New Karachi — see video shops proliferating. No one ventures to open a bookshop. The only bookshops which do roaring business are those selling textbooks. Another phenomenon in the recession process is that the publishing enterprises are moving to the top floor of multistoreyed complexes. The ground floor is no longer affordable.

That only adds to the “book barrier” which booksellers all over the world complain of. As it is, casual shoppers never walk into a bookshop. Now with bookstores safely tucked away on top storeys, fewer customers would stroll in for window gazing.

The complaints of the book trade are quite well known, though they evoke no official response. People do not like to read books, let alone buy them. Theirs is a shrinking market. Then the government has not done much to encourage book publishing. As a result the prices are high and that puts off the few readers that are there. Not surprisingly the trade is not profitable.

Most booksellers are saddled with dead stocks, which only the scrap dealer is willing to buy and that too at a quarter of the price of what he pays for old newspapers.

And yet there is the general impression that publishing is a lucrative business. The booksellers deny that emphatically. “Were it so, why don’t the Dauds and the Adamjees enter this field? You know, Chiniot does not even have a bookshop worth its name,” they say meaningfully.

Book fair

Book lovers in Karachi — there are not too many of them around — should be interested to learn that Say Publishing are holding a 15-day book fair at Jamalistan, Clifton these days.

The fair opened on April 25 and will be on till May 10. The organisers have promised a good selection of Urdu books as well as attractive publications for children.

Source: Dawn 28-04-1991