As I stepped out of the Pioneer Book House on a bright afternoon earlier this year, I wasn’t very sure what would be the future of the bookstore. Internationally acclaimed writer Maniza Naqvi had been posting extensively on Facebook about how she landed at the once much-sought-after book house and her adventures in cleaning the dusty books and racks, bringing them to next-to-perfect order, possibly to attract customers.
She felt sad that the once iconic bookstore was closing down for lack of business. Pioneer Book House is part of Karachi’s landscape. It could not die like that. “Something had to be done to rescue the Book House,” said Maniza Naqvi. Zafar Hussain, owner of the Book House and a fiery activist himself, was thinking of selling it. Despite her best efforts, one wasn’t sure if he would be interested in retaining it.
My doubts were put to sleep when I met Zafar Sahib recently. I found him more excited and relaxed. “Maniza’s hard work seems to have paid off,” he said. “My family has decided to retain it. I am now planning to invest more into this bookshop with new ideas and a better marketing strategy. We cannot let go of this shop built by our ancestors.”
Karachi’s oldest bookstore is being revamped and refurbished with a passion
Pioneer Book House, mostly known for law books, faces a similar fate that many other such bookshops and organisations are struggling with: everything going on-line and the inability to adapt to the new trends in e-marketing to retain a book business. Perched in the one-fourth area of Sami Chambers on the bustling M.A. Jinnah Road, with Dow Medical College, S.M. Science College and SIUT in the vicinity, Pioneer Book House has been a book-lover’s paradise, especially law students. If you could not find a book in the entire city, you could be sure to find it at the Pioneer Book House which was mainly known for law books but had other books as well.
But this paradise was predicated on a demand for printed law material which was the bread and butter of the Book House. Sadly, the demand had now diminished. “There was a time when throngs would line up in front of our Book House hours before shutter-up time at 11am for a printed copy of either the import or any other policy, or sales tax forms, which was a roaring business at the Book House,” says Zafar Sahib. “There used to be audits of the tax system and we sold the forms required for it. All that came to an end once everything went online.”
Zafar Sahib claims that the tax system was once very similar to the Indian system which meant that there was a demand for loads of books from India. “Many lawyers and advocates would come looking for such books as we used to import them from India. We had a thriving business. During the Musharraf era, the tax system became more on the lines of the Australian tax system. I remember most of our imported books becoming redundant; left packed in boxes as suddenly the demand for them ebbed.”
Zafar Sahib remembers how avid book lovers used to frequent the Book House. Renowned Advocate Khalid Ishaque used to visit the Book House every other week. “He would ask for a duster at the counter and then look for law books for hours. I remember he used to sit on a stool by the book racks, brushing off the dust and picking books that he needed.” Late Anita Ghulam Ali also visited the Book House every other week.
Pioneer Book House now has a new website, and book-lovers can buy books online. Zafar Sahib also has plans to revamp the shop with new investment. “My son, a budding graphic designer, has also started taking interest in this business, which means fresh ideas will be inculcated,” he says.
But Zafar Sahib has no plans to move the Book House to any other vicinity though many feel it is inaccessible. “Our entity remains in this area. We will lose it if we relocated.”
Maniza Naqvi agrees with that. “I have tried my best to help preserve an exquisite part of Karachi’s history in the exquisite old city area which is the location of most of my novels and my imagination,” she says. Her message: “To love Karachi, love your city and its people, give it your sweat equity, your organisational skills and positive energy, your networks and your imagination and creativity can help turn around a situation.”
A VIEW TO A BUILDING
The Pioneer Book House is situated in an exquisite building of somewhat Victorian architecture owned by a Nadir Dinshaw before partition which has been under the pagri system. “It’s a rental system practiced in pre-Partition days in which the rights of the rent payer were almost at par with the owner of the building,” explains Sharif Awan, Commissioner Income Tax and founder member of a foundation that works towards the preservation of culture. “Once the owners left or died, banks tried to buy the buildings mostly around the Saddar area. Due to lack of proper documentation, many buildings were left with the same system and are still struggling with it.”
Some buildings around the Saddar area have been razed to build new ones under single ownership. “This building, now called the Sami Chambers, was auctioned a few years back,” says Zafar Sahib. “The new owner has made many improvements to the building to retain its strength.” — S. Naqvi
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 28th, 2017