LAHORE: The arrival of the internet has made it very easy for readers to download the books of their choices while other book lovers prefer to pay hefty sums of money to get their hands on their favourite ones.
But there is another category of bibliophiles who can neither afford to spend too much on buying new books nor do they like to read online because of the missing tactile element that books bring. As a result, they quench their thirst for knowledge by reading second-hand ones.
To cater to this segment of society, there has been a long tradition in Lahore to set up makeshift bookstalls on footpaths in different parts of the city. Every week, stalls are seen outside the Oriental College located near Mall Road where piles of rare and old books can be seen. The books are available in different languages, including English, Arabic and Persian, to name a few.
Haseeb Baig, an elderly roadside book vendor, has been involved in the bookselling profession for the past 25 years. He likes to call himself the “guardian of old and rare books.”
In his bookstall, one can find books related to history, politics, literature, and general knowledge.
“If I hadn’t taken care of these books, they would have ended up in scrap,” Baig told The Express Tribune. “It’s a treasure trove for book lovers as some of the most sought-after books can be found in these second-hand roadside stalls.”
Like Baig, most of the vendors not only sell the books but they are well-versed in different genres and also offer suggestions to the buyers. When there are no customers around, the vendors always have their noses in a book.
Another vendor named Irfan Nazir said that he has been selling old books for the past 40 years. He inherited the business from his father and following his family tradition, he sets up his makeshift bookstall on the footpath every Sunday. According to him, avid book readers from all walks of life frequent his bookstalls in search of good books every week.
“It doesn’t matter if people can afford new books or not. Sometimes, big bookstalls don’t have certain titles and they have to order it from abroad. Therefore, people end up finding those books in the second-hand stalls for a much cheaper price,” he revealed.
Nazir believes the advent of the internet and mobile phone technology has affected reading trends.
“As against the past when thousands of people used to purchase books, very few people come to the stalls these days. Among the buyers, the majority are students who search for old books related to their research and academic assignments and hardly anyone reads for pleasure anymore.”
Contrary to Nazir’s opinion, Baig thinks that although the number of buyers has fallen over the years, it has not affected the worth of books.
“Unlike the information available on the internet, books are still considered more authentic,” Baig said, adding that he receives the majority of his books from scraps.
“We remain in contact with big waste yards and scrap factories in Lahore and procure books and magazines that people discard and sell to them for a few pennies,” he said.
He said that he also buys books from various personal libraries and sometimes gets his hands on some very good English books through containers shipped from abroad. These containers are, however, predominantly loaded with English magazines.
Muhammad Jameel, another book vendor, said that setting up makeshift roadside stalls is sometimes a big hassle because of the absence of a permanent shop. He added that he has been hearing the news of a book street opening up in Lahore for the past several years, but nothing has been done so far.
Recalling the past, he said that there was a time when libraries were built by different communities and owners of private libraries would visit and buy books from roadside stalls on various topics every Sunday.
“As the trend of community-based libraries came to an end, the treasury of books shifted from shelves to roadsides,” he said.
Muhammad Rehan, a young buyer at the Sunday book market, said that he found several rare books at very cheap rates at the stalls. “New books come with hefty price tags which are not affordable for students like me, but with some legwork and efforts, one can find some excellent books at the second-hand stalls,” he said. “It’s definitely worth the investment.”
Similarly, another student named Rabia Ahmed, who had come to the Sunday book market in search of some books by international authors for university-based research, said that she has found two books while her search for more books is underway. “I will get books, originally being sold for several dollars, only for Rs100-150 at the second-hand bookstalls,” she shared.
The vendors selling old books said that the government should fulfil its promise of setting up a book street in Lahore to promote a reading culture. They also demanded to set up a book street similar to the old book house so that the treasure of books could be kept in shelves and that they can maintain a record of books which would allow sellers to sort out the books by their topics.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd, 2019.
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