Is­lam­abad’s book­shops face fi­nal chap­ter

Seis­mic po­lit­i­cal and com­mer­cial pres­sures have taken their toll, ex­plains Us­man Ah­mad

The Guardian Weekly - - Weekly Review - Fad­ing tra­di­tion … (above) rent hikes have hurt Is­lam­abad’s book­shops; (be­low) Nadeem Ah­mad Sid­diqui and one of his pa­trons 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’

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