A short, myopic and utterly biased guide to bookstores in Lahore
Let me qualify this first: by ‘books’ I almost exclusively mean books of fiction and poetry — and my judgment of bookstores rests entirely on the said collections. So, go read some other column if you’re into politics or that kind of a thing. Just go away. (Also, I don’t discuss Urdu books here either; there will be another piece for that.)
Now let’s begin with the usual suspects, Ferozesons and Sang-e-Meel, which have traditionally provided shadier grounds for fiction lovers. Over the past few years, however, these two have fallen on hard times — and it seems to me, they have fallen quite deliberately and even happily. Most of their stock was imported from the UK two decades ago, or earlier. This particularly applies to Sang-e-Meel which seems to be engaged in some sort of hoarding game. The only real addition it has made to its stock in the last two decades is the plastic covers that now seal the books to protect against dust and must. Not that that’s an entirely bad thing, mind you, because in all that plastic I found Lawrence Durrell’s Antrobus Stories — a book that has been out of print for many years now. But here’s the catch: you must buy these plastic-wrapped books at jaw-dropping, eye-popping, soul-smarting prices of more than what they would cost you brand new in the UK itself. (Sang-e-Meel and Ferozesons convert the pounds into rupees at outrageous rates.) Therefore, the only comfort I usually draw from shopping at the said stores is the knowledge that even though I earn in Pakistani Rupees, I can still read in Pounds Sterling.
But no, seriously, if you’re interested in buying fiction in English, there are two bookstores to recommend. One is The Last Word, which is located on the top floor of the Hot Spot, Gaddafi Stadium. It houses a small, smart and remarkably current selection of books, and if there’s a new book to be had, you can trust it shall be served here. TLW specialises in contemporary fiction and nonfiction, and mostly makes up for its tiny size with the big intelligence of its selection. It is also the only place I know in Pakistan where you can find the latest issues of literary magazines, including the terrific The Paris Review. It gets my heart for that.
But the bookstore that gets my love and rocks my world and inspires all these clichés and more is Readings. It has a wonderful collection of both contemporary and classic fiction (although, shockingly, no books by David Foster Wallace!?), its prices are better than other bookstores, and above all, it has the culture of a real bookstore where you have baskets and cushions to collect and browse through your books at leisure, and where the shop boys do not hover about, eyeing you like you’re a book criminal. It is also probably the only bookstore in the country that has entire shelves dedicated to poetry in English, which include contemporary poets. That, ladies and gents, is enough to warrant it as the best bookstore in the country. I owe the discovery of many delightful poets to this bookstore. Here’s a French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, I discovered owing only to this bookstore. I present to you a poem from it, with gratitude.
By Yves Bonnefoy
We granted each other the gift of innocence:
For years just our two bodies fed its flames.
Our steps wandered bare through trackless grass.
We were the illusion known as memory.
Since fire’s born of fire, why should we desire
To gather up its scattered ash.
On the appointed day we surrendered what we were
To a vaster blaze, the evening sky.
Translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers