LAHORE: Classic Books, the iconic book shop and publishing house, has been forced to open a bakery in the store as it struggles to survive in tough economic conditions and declining interest in literature.
Founded in 1957 by an immigrant from Delhi named Agha Ameer Hussain, the bookstore at Regal Chowk was a haven for Pakistan Peoples Party ideologues and centre of discussions about protest and agitation during the rule of General Ziaul Haq. It published over 4,000 books and housed a rare audio library of speeches by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The store earned a place alongside establishments such as Pak Tea House, Cheney’s Lunch Home, Lord’s Cafe, Saloos, Nagina Bakery and Zamindar Hotel in Lahore’s rich cultural and literary history.
Now the books and audio library have been shifted upstairs to make way for pizzas and pastries.
“The bookstore has been running heavy losses for many years. We were even struggling to pay staff salaries. I resisted the temptation of converting it into a more viable commercial venture for two decades, but now I am convinced that the book reading culture in Lahore has gone for good,” said Hussain, who is now 72.
In the 1970s, the bookstore had different kinds of threats to contend with. Zia’s security forces repeatedly raided the store looking for PPP supporters during the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy.
It was ransacked and burnt by anti-PPP elements in 1970 and again during the Nizam-i-Mustafa movement in 1977. Each time, the resilient Hussain rebuilt it from the ashes.
But like publishers and sellers across the country, Classic Books now faces a population with a declining interest in books and increasing access to free literature online. “At the moment the state of the book business is such that in the entire country there are no more than 20 general book stores. Cities with populations of over a million like Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Multan have no general bookstore,” he said.
“I resisted my children, my family and friends who used to suggest I convert this prime location into another business for as long as I could, but I couldn’t do so any longer,” said Hussain.
Hussain, who moved to Lahore three days before Partition, got his love of books from his father, who he recalls had an impressive collection of his own. He set up Classic Books at Regal Chowk in 1957. His first publication was a translation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The early patrons included former prime minister Malik Meraj Khalid, Hanif Ramay and Pervez Rashid.
In those days, Hussain said, he would print 2,000 copies of a Classic Books title and it would be sold out in a couple of days. “Now we only print 300 copies and that is often too much,” he said.
He didn’t agree that the rising price of books was a reason.
“We publish our monthly Sputnik. Every issue carries a translation of a world classic and the price is only Rs40. No one buys it,” he said. “No one is writing and no one is buying nowadays.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2012.