With a collection of over 200,000 individual titles, Saeed Book Bank in Jinnah Super Market is considered to be one of Asia’s largest bookstores. The founder and owner of the store, Saeed Jan Qureshi, has been involved in the business for almost 60 years. Dawn spoke to Mr Qureshi about the business of selling books.
Q. How did you end up in the book business?
A. After leaving my hometown in Tando Ghulam Ali in Sindh in 1956, I took up employment at the London Book House because I love books. To this day, I stay up reading till 3am every night. I also liked the kind of people who came to bookstores - educated and generally well-mannered. In 1964, I opened my own bookstore in Peshawar called Saeed Book Bank.
We did good business. We were the biggest bookstore in the north-western Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was frequent movement of people, tourism thrived and people would travel all the way from Kandahar and Kabul to shop at our store.
Thirty-six years later, politics had changed Peshawar. We also wanted to expand so in 2000, we opened the Islamabad branch.
Q. There is a general global decline in book sales, how is that affecting your business?
A. There may be a decline in sales globally, but fortunately in Pakistan and India, book sales are actually going up. The reason is the growth in population and even literacy rate. The trend of reading e-books on handheld devices may have affected book sales in the developed world but not here.
This is despite the fact that the Pakistani government has never taken steps to encourage the book business. Importing a book costs 18 per cent of the price, including taxes and transportation costs. In India the book business is thriving because the government offered publishers lucrative incentives.
The government even buys back any unsold book stocks from publishers at 10 per cent higher than the cost.
For Saeed Book Bank, in particular, business is good because of our scale. We import much of our stock. Publishers around the world know us and offer us better prices than smaller buyers. This allows us to offer competitive prices. Some publishers in the United Kingdom and the United States even offer us refunds on any unsold stock.
Secondly, even though it is a small city, Islamabad is a big market for books. It’s a city of diplomats and officers, so many people read. Book lovers from all over the region, come and shop at Saeed Book Bank. We even export books to South Africa, Nigeria and China.
Q. How do you choose the titles for your stock?
A. One needs years of experience and a lot of research to know which titles to stock. There are some obvious choices, such as authors who always sell such as Pervez Musharraf.
People place orders for books by these authors, before the book is even out. Then there are current topics in non-fiction books such as Taliban, terrorism, Kashmir which we know people are interested in and we stock-up on them.
To order latest titles, my sons and I travel to the world’s biggest book fairs. At these fairs, the biggest one of which is in Germany, publishers from around the world display latest titles. Booksellers like us, place orders with publishers at the fair and later stocks are delivered. This is how we ensure that we have all the latest titles.
Q. Is it true that your bookstore drove smaller shops selling cheap and second-hand books out of business?
It is true, although it was not our intention. Most other book sellers in the city buy containers of what we call pulp books from the United Kingdom and the United States. These are books which would otherwise have been recycled and are instead sold by weight to booksellers in the developing world. So, they are sold at very cheap prices and even if five to 10 per cent of the stock is sold, it is profitable for the seller.
However, these are books that no one wants. When Saeed Book Bank opened, bringing such a large collection of latest titles, people found an alternative, so naturally they began buying books from here. Sales for other stores began declining and they eventually started shutting down.
Rents in areas such as F-6 and F-7 started rising exponentially, making it difficult for smaller business to survive. We own this building and so we can afford to have four floors of space.
A fast-food chain once offered me Rs6 million per month for just two floors of this space.
However, some sellers are still around and some sell pirated books for those who cannot afford original copies. Personally, I think buying a pirated book is akin to stealing but I don’t blame people. Original books can be too expensive for some.
—Text by Shiza Malik
Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2015