Smack in the middle of Saddar’s electronics market - with a refrigerator store to the right and a man selling gold-plated watches to the left - you will find one of the oldest surviving bookstores in the city, Thomas & Thomas.
The bookstore has been standing tall since before Partition. It has braved many storms over the years, such as witnessing the depressing shuttering of neighbouring bookshops. But now, the owner thinks it is time to pack up and relocate somewhere else.
These days, Mohammad Yunus is busy looking for an affordable shop in Clifton as he feels that the people there have picked up the habit of reading again. “I cannot move on rent because the profit margins are slim,” he said with uncertainty in his voice. “Buying a shop means a capital investment of millions. So I am being very cautious.” A customer once asked him why he was interested in running a bookstore. “He told me aap ne andhon ke bazaar mein chashmay ki dukaan khol rakhi hai [you’re an optician in a blind man’s bazaar],” said Yunus while pointing at the roadside stalls and shops outside. “If you look around, this is an unusual place for selling books.” Thomas & Thomas was run by a British gentleman before Yunus’s grandfather bought it in 1948. “This part of the city used to have some of the best bookstores in Karachi,” he said. “Paramount, Pak-American, Greenwich, Sassi, Union and O.K. book stalls have either closed down or shifted.”
He claimed that traffic and a lack of parking space was killing the business. “I am not making any money from this,” he admits darkly from the recesses of a reclining chair. “Not a single penny. But my son insists that I must not remain idle and do something. He is working in London and that is how we make ends meet.”
It has been a slow death of customers. Children and the generations of today prefer the internet and television. “It is once in a blue moon that a father walks in with his son,” he said, while brushing aside his greying hair to look at the newspapers spread on the table in front of him. “Even the large book dealers are not making much money. If you go around, you’ll see that many bookstores have started selling toys and stationery.” At one point, Yunus had even imported books from India where competition had cut the cost of publishing.
The elderly gentleman has thought of other options to turn the book business into a profitable one, but claims that in Pakistan no one was willing to spend money. He said that if you go abroad, people usually have a cup of coffee or two at a bookstore. In the US, nearly 80% of people ended up buying a book after coffee, but over here the chances of them buying anything were less than 10%.
The seasoned book-seller has also noted that young people’s reading preferences have changed. A few days ago, a girl walked in looking for a book on comparative religion. Books on history are also in high demand and could really help Thomas & Thomas come back into business.
Every couple of weeks he makes a trip to survey the book stalls at Sunday Bazaar. If he finds something worthwhile to read, he reads it and then decides how many copies should be bought.
“People read newspaper reviews and get excited about some authors and come looking for trashy fiction,” he added. In his opinion, though, a lot of bad fiction was floating around, which is why it was better to stick to the classics. He is more interested in selling the ten-volume ‘The Story of Civilization’ written by Will and Ariel Durant, a series you won’t find anywhere in Karachi.
But perhaps that says something. Yunus’s challenge, and indeed any bookstore owner’s, is to constantly assess market mood in order to calibrate their orders. As with reading books, it is a journey of constant discovery, highs and lows, triumphs and deadends.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2011.
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