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Books on the side

Time to revisit those selling second-hand books on footpaths and sidewalks to see if they still have any takers

Books on the side
The booksellers sit by their ‘collections’ all day long, defying the scorching heat of the summer sun in Lahore. — Photo by Rahat Dar

Faisal Habib, a young man, occupies a small space on the footpath along Government College University (GCU)’s boundary wall that curves at the mouth of Old Anarkali.

On any given day, this would make a crowded juice corner. But Habib isn’t selling something that the customers could consume right there. This is his little, roadside bookshop (or stall, if you like) and it especially attracts young students from nearby campuses such as the Punjab University (PU), National College of Arts (NCA) and King Edward Medical College University (KEMCU) who are looking for second-hand books at cheap rates.

Habib’s is not the only roadside book stall of its kind. Going around in the city, especially opposite Mayo Hospital, in Urdu Bazaar and the adjoining markets on the Mall Road, one finds many such stalls set up on sidewalks. Usually, they have a sprawl of books — lined in no particular order but attractively enough to lure a passerby. The booksellers sit by their ‘collections’ all day long, defying the rigours of the weather.

On the other end of the spectrum, the city is home to the ‘posh’ old book shops such as Readings that offer more than just a vast collection to their customers/visitors — you also find an air-conditioned room space with the peace and quiet you need to be able to browse through the racks attentively. What’s more, these outlets have coffee corners for those who want to enjoy reading over a drink.

The many book fairs and Sunday book markets also attract the same kind of readers.

Habib doesn’t necessarily see the same customer base as his target. Though, he insists that there is an obvious difference in prices. And that is his stall’s USP.

According to Naseem, a middle-aged owner of a stall near Mayo Hospital, “We might not be like your posh bookstore but we are no less!”

Pompous as his claim is, it isn’t entirely untrue. His stock of books and magazines is quite diverse — here you can find anything from cookbooks to religious texts, birth control manuals and classical and pop fiction.

Habib’s stall is almost half a century old. “Over 40 years ago, my grandfather started the business of selling old books,” he tells TNS.

When asked about the supply chain, he says, “Mostly, the people come to us with any number of books they no longer need. They sell these to us. There have been instances where we were sold entire collections and anthologies.

“People collect books all their life but after they pass away, their children or grandchildren are usually not interested in keeping them. So they sell off what would be another person’s most prized possession,” he says, with a hint of sarcasm.

Weather conditions often come in the way of their business. Faisal Habib admits that the customers don’t usually stop to even glance through the books when it’s a very hot summer day.

Even though such stalls offer an interesting range of genres, and the books are inexpensive, there is a growing competition that they have to face, almost without their knowledge, in the form of e-books.

But not everyone owns a high-end digital device (read Kindle) and an internet connection. Again, not everyone can afford to splurge on books that are becoming costlier by the day.

Another issue that spells horror for the owners of such smallish roadside book stalls is the easy access to pirated editions and photocopied prints. “If the original [book] costs Rs1,000, the photocopied is produced on your request in Urdu Bazaar for a maximum Rs200,” says Habib, lamentingly.

The availability of so many options is likely to make a dent in the business of those selling used books on the footpaths and sidewalks. But you can’t say that they have no takers.

Intsab Sahi

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