Amid continuous threats from extortionists and a rapidly deteriorating security situation in neighbouring areas, business customers are the sole lifeline for traders in Karachi’s oldest and largest wholesale bazaar: the Boulton Market.
Every single shopkeeper contacted by this correspondent refused to be identified when commenting on how the gang violence has spilled over into their business dealings, and how gangsters operating in the area have affected their daily activities. They outright refused to talk numbers.
“The largest hosiery dealer in Boulton Market closed shop last week after receiving a ‘parchi’ demanding Rs2.5 million in extortion money,” a shopkeeper confided to The Express Tribune. The ‘parchi’ (literally: paper slip) is the dreaded extortion note unlucky businesses in the city receive when they find themselves in the crosshairs of a criminal gang. It is usually accompanied by a written death threat.
A vestige of the past
Built in the late 1800s, the Boulton Market is one of the oldest markets in Karachi. It serves as a hub for retailers – mainly small businessmen – and general customers, who turn up in huge numbers to shop for goods at the cut-price rates offered.
Boulton Market, according to shopkeepers, is well-known for offering the best rates on a variety of consumer goods. Although it has mainly been a market for wholesale goods throughout history, many shopkeepers have now started serving retail customers as well.
But the emergence of large supermarkets and wholesale stores in various parts of the city has reduced daily customer traffic to some extent. The increase in traffic congestion and the lack of a parking facility has also diverted many customers to other markets, a shopkeeper told The Express Tribune. He has been running a toyshop in the market for the last ten years.
“However,” he said, “none of these factors have been able to hold us back. These new supermarkets can sell cheap grocery, but for items like toys, people still find the best rates here in Boulton,” he said.
He further said that a bulk of his customers come from the budget markets located on the city’s outskirts. Even supermarkets buy a majority of their goods from here, he claimed.
“Come what may, business customers are bound to come here shopping,” another shopkeeper concurred. “All big importers are still located in this market, which is why business customers will keep coming here.”
However, he admitted that new supermarkets have stolen customers. In some cases, he said, supermarkets are more economical because of the economy of scales they enjoy.
While most shopkeepers complained about the “slow” business day, this correspondent observed heavy pedestrian traffic; some shopkeepers even refused to speak, as they were busy dealing with customers.
But one old-timer dismissed that observation: “This traffic is not even half of what we have in this season,” he said. “During rush hour, one barely has room to walk; these streets are so busy,” he added.
“We are still in business because there is huge consumer demand in the city,” he explained.
“The one thing that has hurt our business is the ongoing disturbance around here. The last five to six months have been the worst: who will come to this market after reading this?” he asked, waving a newspaper held in his hand.
The front page story was headlined with a story on the death toll from an ongoing gang war in Lyari.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2013.
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