First, a confession: I am not an ‘arts’ person. The last time I went to an art exhibition I felt completely out of my element; full marks to the artist who painstakingly explained her work to me.
Books, however, are a different ballgame. I am a certified bibliophile, and a book hoarder. So, when someone prompted that I check out Coopera Art Gallery’s book centre, I felt excited but also intimidated. Excited because there would be new books to explore, and intimidated, well, because it’s an art gallery(!).
On a rather hot June morning, I reached Coopera. A basement setup, the place has multiple archways, with good enough lighting. The bookstore begins immediately after you cross the desks of the gallery officials on the one side and the cash counter on the other.
I was told that the centre was established in 1963. They have over a hundred self-published titles (though some are out of stock). Interestingly, the first book published by the publishing arm of the gallery, called Pakistan Writers’ Cooperative Society, was a series of debates by Justice MR Kiani against Ayub Khan’s Marshal Law.
The layout of the place is quite basic — books are displayed on shelves on both sides of the central arched walkway. From Sufi poetry to Arthashastra, they have it all. Periodicals about translated contemporary Hindi drama and prose are also on display. Books in Urdu outnumber English titles across genres.
Coopera also offers art books — a few in its English section — while the Urdu section is dominated by literary and political writings. The English section boasts books on politics and law as well as dictionaries, and a small part is dedicated to classical literature (prose and verse). There are several biographies to be found, too.
The books on art, published by Coopera, are marked by high printing standards. What’s more, their prices are quite reasonable. An impressive, all-colour, several hundred pager on Masjid Wazir Khan retails for Rs3,000. A similar book by any other publisher would set you back several hundreds more. This is because of the fact that Coopera is a not-for-profit organisation that gives relative newcomers a chance to publish their work.
In general, the feel of the place and the titles of books from another time and era shall work wonders on your imagination. (I walked away with one on trees of Pakistan — a topic that you don’t generally find in local bookstores.)
All is not ok, though. The courteous staff laments about the dropping sales. It seems the bookshop caters to grandparents but not the millennials. Perhaps, because the millennials would rather stare at a laptop/Kindle/smartphone screen than read a tome on geo-politics, for instance.
Coopera’s book centre can do better if it builds on its brand by, perhaps, launching things like prints of paintings, and selling memorabilia such as arts and crafts. It can market these merchandise with organisations like Aik Hunar Aik Nagar. Such steps could help to make it more financially viable and also assure its place in the otherwise declining trend of book-buying in Lahore. Proceeds could easily be shifted towards the core task of publishing more titles, especially those that are not published by other publishers because of commercial constraints. Perhaps, a smallish coffee/tea corner could also be started, in order to cater to the exhibitors and visitors alike. A book in hand and a hot cuppa in the other; what else would you ask for!