Islamabad’s bookshops face final chapter
Seismic political and commercial pressures have taken their toll, explains Usman Ahmad
Nadeem Ahmad Siddiqui is holding court with a group of friends and regulars at his Islamabad bookshop, Jumbo. The jovial chatter and tea-drinking is broken up every so often by a customer seeking Siddiqui’s help. A child is gently admonished to find something more stimulating to read, while a question about medical textbooks from a mother and daughter soon turns into an animated discussion about India-Pakistan relations.
Tucked away in the corner of a busy commercial sector, Jumbo Books has a special status among Islamabad’s “old bookshops”, as secondhand book stores are known here.
Once the nondescript doorway is located among the swanky new restaurants and fashion boutiques of Pakistan’s capital, the visitor takes a staircase down to a concrete basement. Inside are shelves piled high with rare antique books, philosophical tomes and contemporary literature.
When Islamabad was built as the capital of a newly independent Pakistan, it was the “old bookshops” that gave the neighbourhoods a spirit and character beyond the insipid soullessness that pervades purpose-built cities.
Now their accelerating disappearance tells a story of the seismic political and commercial shifts that have taken place in the city over the past two decades. First, the 9/11 attacks and Pakistan’s subsequent role in the war on al-Qaida saw the departure of many of Islamabad’s foreign residents, who made up a significant portion of the stores’ customer base. Then, when the country began to show signs of recovery, the bookshops of Islamabad were unable to keep up.
Islamabad’s evolution from dreary city of civil servants to modern international capital has caused much of their decline – particularly through rising rents, thanks to an influx of shopping malls, hotels and big retailers, and Islamabad’s increasing importance as a hub on the China-Pakistan economic corridor. Then there’s the rise of ebooks, online shopping and Pakistan’s crumbling education system; while extremism means stores can no longer stock certain books for fear of violence.
Siddiqui says that when his father opened Jumbo Books in 1974, it was the first of its kind in the city. Even the term “old bookshop” is said to have originated with him.
“My father started this business by selling secondhand books on the side of a pavement in Rawalpindi,” he says. “He was eventually able to open a store in 1957, before relocating to Islamabad in 1974.
“He was the first to coin the term ‘old bookshop’, and then every secondhand bookshop that opened in Islamabad began using it. What set us apart from other booksellers in Pakistan is that, with a regular turnover of foreign diplomats, we had a ready supply of the latest titles which were sold or donated to us. We were also selling mostly in English, which was unheard of at the time.”
Soon Siddiqui is joined by his cousin Shahid, who last year closed his old bookshop to go into the toy business. His father, too, was one of the pioneers of the industry, and their story also began on the pavements of Rawalpindi with books sourced from private collections left behind by the British after independence. From the age of 10, Shahid would help his father every Friday to learn the trade. In 1984, he opened his own shop in Islamabad.
“Islamabad used to have old bookshops with distinct identities in every neighbourhood,” he recalls. “In the 90s, books used to come in on shipping containers in huge numbers and we never had a problem selling them. Now, though, very few of us remain and a lot of the newer stores are focused on selling school and university textbooks. Pakistan’s political situation hasn’t helped, but it has been the rent hikes in Islamabad that have really put paid to the business. I miss owning my own bookshop very much, but what can you do?” It seems that most of the old bookshops that have survived share one characteristic: the owners of the store own the premises too.
Old Books Collection in the Jinnah Super Market mall is one of the survivors. Following the death last year of its proprietor, Malik Ijaaz, his wife has decided to keep the business alive.
Atif Masood, a regular customer, has witnessed the development of Islamabad into a modern city first-hand – and says it retains some of its old charm, despite the closure of many old bookshops.
But he believes the unique character of the stores will see them endure.
“The other day, I asked for a crazy reduction,” he explains. “The attendant said he would give me a special discount if I could guess the prices of the books of the gentleman who had been ahead of me in the queue. I was able to guess correctly and secured my discount. You can’t get this kind of service elsewhere.”
‘Pakistan’s situation hasn’t helped but it has been rent hikes that have put paid to the business’