Reporter: Iqra Abbasi
Written by: Danish Riaz Awan
Photography: Jiya Ali
“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” ― Marcus Tullius Cicero
One can hear from afar the hustle and bustle as one drives to the famous Urdu Bazaar, located near Karachi’s M.A. Jinnah Road. Young girls and boys hover intently over their favourite books, while adults haggle with shopkeepers.
Hundreds of stalls are lined up with stacks of books, be it coursebooks, fiction, nonfiction or magazines, one can find everything at a low cost here at one of the oldest book markets in the country.
Urdu Bazaar started out as a small market with just 10 to 12 tiny stalls, which were located in the Mission Road at the time of Partition. In the late 1960s, the market shifted to its current location. It is popular with book lovers and also students because it has a huge collection of secondhand course books, stationery and other items available at low cost.
Syed Zafarul Hassan prefers “kutub farosh” for himself instead of the bland “bookseller.” Senior vice chairman of Urdu Bazaar Book Seller Association (BSA), he says the latter name treats bookselling simply as a business, but for the kutub farosh, selling books is an art. He knows the books, the preface, the index as well as the contents.
Hassan is also the owner of Tahir Sons in Urdu Bazaar. He belongs to the third generation of his family running the book business since the 1990s. Like a true kutub farosh, he is an avid book reader.
Hassan’s bookshop offers a diverse range of books including fiction, books for competitive exams like CSS and PMS, coursebooks, and graduate and post-graduate studies books. He says most of his buyers are young students using the books for school.
There are many articles on whether paperbacks and hardbacks will soon be a thing of the past and whether online reading will become the norm. But in Pakistan, at least when it comes to books, young and old alike seem to be very fond of physical books.
For Urdu Bazaar bookshop owners, selling physical books is a cherished vocation that is no match with running an online business. Hassan is also old-school like that; he thinks it is good for his business. A customer may just order the one book he wants through online portals, but when presented with so many choices in a bookstore, he is bound to be tempted and buy more, he says.
Asma, who is a lawyer, is a regular at the Bazaar and loves to stroll around and discover new books. She also brings her kids in order to inculcate the habit of reading in them.
Many others who frequent the market echoed the same views that they would prefer visiting bookshops over online purchasing or online reading. Some did not fancy online shopping, while others had bad experiences with using their debit or credit cards. Asad, who is a Masters student at Federal Urdu University, said he never went back to using online bookstores because he was once charged more on his card than the book’s original price. The refund took a long time, so now he doesn’t really see the point in shopping for books online.
Internet ubiquity and fast internet speeds are still issues even for a metropolitan city like Karachi. Gender plays a part too in how accessible it is. Maham, another Masters student, said that it is a far-fetched an idea for a girl belonging to a low-income family to use the internet for ordering books. While the cash on delivery option is quite common in Pakistan, those requiring credit or debit cards may not be suitable for lower-income families.
But there certainly exists a market for those who want all options on their screen, as the owner of The Readers Club would tell you. Osama’s business is quite innovative; it not only sells various titles, including rare ones, but it is also gives readers the option to rent the books they need. Customers pay a certain amount for a specific number of titles rented per month.
The business is a hit, and Osama says that they have a “huge” clientele. They provide delivery in all parts of the city. He adds that school and university students form the major part of his clientele.
There is no credit card requirement here, but the book buyer must transfer half the amount through other online payment options like JazzCash, while the other half would be paid at the delivery.
When it comes to rare books or expensive university coursebooks, there is no reliable option other than Urdu Bazaar. But the ever-deteriorating traffic situation in Karachi, which makes the commute longer for people from more distant areas areas, and the congested streets in which Urdu Bazaar resides, have made it harder for people to visit this place. It's no wonder students and young people have relinquished the hobby of buying books in favour of e-commerce.
A lot of Osama’s customers are also those who used to frequent Urdu Bazaar for their book needs. Osama says he is glad to provide a good, albeit limited, option to book lovers.
Booksellers at Urdu Bazaar agree the traffic situation here is dire. A plot nearby and next to the Govt. College for Women Shahrah-e-Liaquat is being used as a garbage dump, which the shopkeepers suggest should be convereted into a parking space. Perhaps the internet may dent their sales a little bit, but the bazaar will live on. That's because Urdu Bazaar is an institution in and of itself, and should be respected as heritage, the kutub farosh demand.