Nostalgic scent of old books

Published February 14, 2021
SHELVES of old books on myriad subjects at the Book Fair, owned by Mohammad Abid Siddiqui, in Old Anarkali.—Photo by writer
SHELVES of old books on myriad subjects at the Book Fair, owned by Mohammad Abid Siddiqui, in Old Anarkali.—Photo by writer

ONCE a big allure for Lahore’s literati, Pratap Street that comes on the right side as one enters the Old Anarkali Bazaar from the Mall Road now has only a couple of old books shops left as many others remained unable to withstand the rigours of operational demands.

The street used to house half a dozen shops of old books until some years back.

Shahid Book House is one of the last two shops here still catering to the need of readers as it has a considerable stock of books on a variety of subjects like history, literature and medicine. Tucked behind his table, surrounded by books right at the entrance braving the winds of time, Shahid Mehmood is the only bookseller seen here during a visit to the street. Another senior bookseller, Badar, is not that regular.

“All the vintage booksellers have left the place and moved to other businesses. They, unlike me, had got their shops on rent and it had become hard for them to keep the business of old books afloat,” Shahid, now in his 50s, shares with Dawn.

Old Anarkali’s Pratap Street left with two booksellers after closure of two dozen bookshops

One of the earliest shops, which had been closed down, was Hero Bookshop. It was established by one Syed Ghulam Ali aka Hero, who got his nickname due to his interest in acting. After his death, his son, Shahzad Ali, shut the bookshop and moved to Karachi.

Explaining reasons for the decline in books business, Shahid says: “The habit of reading books has dwindled among the people. Besides, the business of books is shifting to the online platforms and the readers place orders there to receive books at home. The reluctance to leave homes and visit old bazaars like Anarkali is also linked to the increasing rush on the roads and traffic jams in the area.”

Now left with more of saudade, Shahid narrates how people used to walk to his bookshop in the evening and some frequent visitors would strike up a friendship with him, having tea at the shop while sifting books.

“That generation is now gone and the people have moved out of this area,” he says though the Book House still finds some old customers visiting him in search of rare books.

Shahid, who had started selling books in his teens in the late 1980s and has been running this shop since 1992, says the Old Anarkali was once known for bookshops.

“There was the Publishers United that has been converted into a plaza having mostly garments shops while there was the Noor Company also. The Rama Krishna & Sons (established in 1894) was a bookshop before the partition, later converted into Ideal Book House that now houses a shoe store of a famous brand. (The building is still there with the name of original owners embossed on it). Also, the Punjab Religious Books Society, established in 1865, is shut and at its place used clothes are sold. The owners of Caravan Book Depot also gave their shop to a shoe business.

Shahid thinks the business of books, too, has gone online but says he is happy with his old committed customers.

In his book, Lahore Lahore Aey, A. Hameed mentions a vintage books dealer who was so engrossed in book reading that even when a customer asked him for a certain book, he got irritated, saying, “What the hell! As soon as one opens the shop, customers start coming.”

The same can be said for Baba Yousuf, a bookseller and an avid reader who would come daily from as far as 70km from Lahore to sell books at the cheapest rates while keeping his passion for reading unfettered, according to Shahid.

Among the booksellers who have shifted from Pratap Street, Mohammad Abid Siddiqui has moved to the basement of a new plaza near the street. Running as many as five shops in the basement, Siddiqui has seen expansion in the business with the online sales too. Besides, he prints books on special orders.

“We have started business online under the title of Book Fair. It increased business as the customers get books at home through cash-on-delivery mode.”

Siddiqui, who had started selling old books with his father in the 1990s, believes the new generation does not know much about books. “However, there are hobbyists who still come to the shop in search of books. A new breed of customers is that of school and college administrations which have to set up libraries as required by the education authorities. They also come to buy old books for establishing their libraries.”

Siddiqui says second-hand English books are imported from Singapore and other countries and he buys them from Karachi. As online reading for long hours is hard, students get their digital books printed from his shop.

He remembers that there used to be between 20 and 25 booksellers in Anarkali a couple of decades ago, while only a couple of them are now left.

As most of the booksellers have vanished from Anarkali, some vendors still sell old books on footpaths near Government College University while a makeshift bazaar of old books on the Mall Road along Anarkali on Sundays does attract readers.

With the expansion in the population of Lahore, the vintage bookshops have also scattered. There are Siddiqui Vintage Books at Regal Chowk, Wisdom Books in the main market of Gulberg and Nazeer Bookshop in Street 35 of Dharampura. Nazeer has a huge stock of vintage books. In his shop, a bit away from the main road, one can see Understanding Islam by Frithjof Schuon, Fifty Shades of Gray by E.L. James and vintage Bhagavad Gita are placed nearby. He has also got film magazines from the 1950s/60s and a huge quantity of famous editions of literary journal, Naqoosh.

Nazeer had started his business in 1992 from Fortress Stadium and then moved to Anarkali Sunday Bazaar in 1996 while having his bookshop in Dharampura.

He prides himself on having centuries-old hand-written books. His most expensive treasure is the 1722 edition of the Bible, a book on Hyderabad Deccan and some Persian and Arabic books which are two and three centuries old.

Like Siddiqui, Nazeer is also using the new technology to expand his outreach as he gets orders on WhatsApp after posting book images. “If I have customers in Islamabad, Faisalabad and even the US, I send them images of books on WhatsApp and get the orders from them. We are selling books online and through social media too. Any new customers looking for antique books trace me through Google, as well,” he tells Dawn.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2021

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