Book prices scare away readers

Published October 11, 2015
Sunday book stalls on Bank Road are a favourite hunting ground for book lovers. — Photo by Khurram Amin
Sunday book stalls on Bank Road are a favourite hunting ground for book lovers. — Photo by Khurram Amin

The decline of recreational reading is almost always explained away by the arrival of computers, tablets and smart phones fuelled by easy-access internet. Children would rather play online games on their gadgets, or keep up with their friends on social media than curl up with a good book.

However, people on the hunt for a good read in Rawalpindi’s Sunday bazaar thought it was the increase in the prices of books that was the main reason for the decline in book reading. They said browsing the internet was cheaper than buying books.

Old book shops see more business than first-hand book shops. People can buy half-priced books on any topic, as well as textbooks.

All main bazaars in Rawalpindi feature a couple, if not more, old book shops that cater to avid readers and students. Every Sunday the pavements along Bank Road, Saddar, are lined with book stalls and vendors calling out to bystanders and rattling off famous book titles.

A book hunter with a keen eye can find many hidden gems in these stalls, with publications in Urdu, English and French.

The Sunday bazaar has been a pre-partition tradition in Saddar, but its visitors have dwindled.

“I have been in the business for 30 years. We buy books from trash dealers and people and then sell them at cheaper rates,” Nisar Ahmed, a vendor, said.

A decade ago the plaza cinema was speckled with big book shops, but they have since been turned into restaurants and fast food outlets. Book shops at The Mall, on Canning Road and on Hospital Road have long run out of business.

Dr Mazhar Azim, who has lived in the garrison city for a long time, has been visiting the old book bazaar in Saddar since 1965.

“This book bazaar has been operating since the British Raj. There used to be a huge shop by the name of London Book Shop on the main square of Kashmir Road and Bank Road. Thirty years ago, it was moved to Islamabad and the shop was turned into a bakery,” he said.

He added that a few years ago he could find first hand books in the bazaar at cheaper rates, whereas now, stallholders demand high prices for second hand books.

Farah Khan, a housewife scouring the aisles of a book shop along Bank Road, said: “I prefer to quench my thirst for reading at old book shops. I have found some of my children’s textbooks here as well.”

She said the sharp hike in book prices upsets her kitchen budget.

Mr and Mrs Naseer Ahmed were looking for books recommended by their children’s private school. They said they had to come to second hand shops as their children’s teacher had asked them to buy books of five famous writers.

They said: “We found the books in various shops and spent about Rs2,000 on second hand books. If we had bought new books we would have spent Rs4,000, which would have upset our monthly budget.”

A retired government official said he waits for books to be sold at second hand shops after he reads reviews of them on the internet.

“A few years ago, a new book would cost between Rs200 to Rs450. However, this past decade has seen such a sharp increase in book prices. I have 30 books on my list. I will have to wait till they are available in old book shops.”

He said the pirated versions were in small print, which is why he waited for the originals to be handed down.

Sajid Mehmood, a shopkeeper, said that the increase in the cost of paper and printing had caused book prices to increase.

“Previously one could buy a book for Rs400, but its price has increased to Rs900 due to the printing costs,” he said.

He said that in this situation people would have to pay more for secondhand books.

“Textbooks, especially those from abroad, also cost a lot,” he added.

The owner of an old book shop, Rafaqat Hussain, said he sold old books after necessary repairs which increased the selling price a little.

“We are running a business and we have to make a small profit too. People are still getting a good deal at a decreased price,” he said.

He said people have to understand the simple dynamics of running a business. “When the price of paper and printing increases, the prices of books have to be increased accordingly.”

Another shopkeeper, Mohammad Akbar, said the sale of secondhand books and old books had not increased over the last few years. He said people used to sell their old books and buy new ones, but the business has seen a slump in the last few years.

However, Naeem Ahmed, who is a lecturer at a government college, said book companies were making higher profits than they claimed. He said people should visit book stalls at Sunday bazaars where they can find books in good condition at a lower price.

He said the government should revive public libraries.

“It will improve the reading culture and people will spend more time on something worthwhile rather than wasting it on the internet.”

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2015

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