Bookshops always fascinate me, particularly if they’re in unusual locations. Hence, it was only natural that the red-bricked Al Mehran Bookstall, located away from any central marketplace, caught my eye.
The bookshop, initially transformed from a library, flourishes in isolation. It sits comfortably at the end of the famous Tilak incline or Tilak Charhi in Hyderabad.
Since my childhood, I have seen the bookshop open for business come harsh winters or scorching summers. It remains open in stormy rains and even on some days that lean on political aggression.
“During strikes and even when the city is gripped by violence, I close the front shutter and sell books from the back gate of the shop, my regular customers are familiar with it,” Kazi Muhammad Yousuf – the 70-year-old founder and owner of Al Mehran bookstall says.
“I’ve been selling books for the last 42 years; I used to charge 5 paisas for the Imran Series novel and 10 paisas for the rather large books when this was a library some 35 years ago,” Yousuf says.
Walking up the few steps that lead to the entrance of the shop, the small space inside warmly embraces me. Hollywood and Bollywood tabloids, hang on a string on a side wall, and a pile of National Geographic magazines lay patiently on my left on the floor.
Just as no old bookshop is complete without them, Al Mehran too boasts of a healthy heap of Readers Digests; books in Urdu, English, Sindhi and several other languages make up for the rest of the collection.
From entertainment and political weekly magazines and secondary school guide books to medical references and English fiction novels the ‘mini library’ has it all. Much to my amazement, Yousuf has even preserved the first prints of the Ibne Safi spy series.
It is a proud collection but tough economic conditions have meant that Yousuf has had to part ways with his ‘classics collection’, sometimes for merely a few hundred rupees.
“Many times I have given away books for free to students who can not afford them, a large majority of us in the city aren’t very well off,” he adds.
The nature of his business and his love for books has also paid dividends in some instances.
“A person from Peshawar came to the shop. After skimming around, he found a rare book on Bengali Magic and he screamed in joy. He said that he had been searching for the book for more than 20 years! The man gave me Rs. 5000 and a very pleasant smile for the book.”
Books at the Al Mehran are not properly arranged and indexed, however most of them are in very good condition. The impeccable state of a 1912 print issue of “English Seamen in the 16th Century” was one such example. Some books at the stall, Yousuf tells me, are more than 200-years-old.
So, it came as no surprise that Hyderabad’s prominent teachers, doctors, lawyers and scholars regularly visited the Al Mehran Bookstall.
Many professionals upon inquiry stated that the bookshop played a vital role in their careers, with the invaluable help of reference and guidebooks for their respective fields.
Some of them now occasionally stop by the bookshop to thank Yousuf.
“A doctor once came from UK and visited my shop with his British wife. Both of them greeted and thanked me and gave me a beautiful necklace as a gift,” Yousuf recalls.
Yousuf says people usually discard or sell old books in the months around Eid, when they are cleaning out their homes. The sale of fiction novels increases during the winters.
It has become such a pattern that sometimes the books that Yousuf sold years ago make a return to his shop.
Customarily, that is a sign that one of Yousuf’s old customer has passed away.
He reveals that as bookseller for years, he gets acquainted with his customers and their traditions in ways not many do.
“I have often observed that the family members of a scholar don’t respect his/her personal library. It seems like the first thing they do after his/her death is to throw out all the books,” Yousuf adds with despair.
But just like a book, the characters and stories keeping changing for the The Al Mehran Bookstall.
While I was in converse with the owner, two young girls come in to acquire old issues of Urdu digests and later a boy to buy a Matriculation Chemistry practical book.
“As you can see, I live a happy and peaceful life with this bookshop,” he said.
In the very hot summer of Hyderabad, when the scorching sun seems to be melting the charcoal roads, the Al Mehran Bookstall appears to be like an oasis in the urban desert – with Yousuf’s love for books, it is only apt to wish here for a never-ending story.
The writer is a Multimedia Content Producer at Dawn.com