A recent survey by Gallup & Gilani Pakistan stated that 75 percent of Pakistanis do not read. No poetry, no fiction, no essays – nothing. The news, carried by several prominent newspapers and shared extensively on social media, further put a damper on already tired spirits of the few who do read, who care about the written word and its power to change the destinies of nations, or simply to make better versions of us all. As more and more people tweeted about this survey, supposedly from the 9 percent of the population that still reads, a “Big Bad Wolf” rolled into town, in Lahore, in an almost comic puff of irony, with “a million books” to sell at what is claimed to be one of the world’s biggest book sales.
Set up at the Lahore Expo Centre’s Hall 3, the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale is a niftily designed ten-day long (19th April – 29th April), 24 hours a day, once-a-year event that has made its way to Pakistan from Malaysia. Started by Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng as an extension of their bookstore, the very first Big Bad Wolf Book Sale was organised in 2009 in Selangor, Malaysia. In the following decade, the initiatives have gone international, with yearly events in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, the UAE, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and recently, in Dubai. Rated a “howling success” by the founders, the event is happening in Pakistan because of an enterprising Dubai based Pakistani entrepreneur Awais Akhtar Butt who stumbled across one of the sales on holiday. I met Awais on my second trip to the sale, after satisfactorily fleecing myself by buying more books than I had intended to.
“I visited one of the Big Bad Wolf Sales with my Dubai based partner in a Far Eastern country. I was amazed at the sheer volume of books on display, the discounted prices and the fact that the whole place was swamped with buyers,” Awais says. “People were filling trolleys with books like they buy groceries in supermarkets here. It was delightful!”
Awais originally belongs to Lahore, and like any Lahori, believes the city to be the cultural capital of the country. Cynicism would dictate otherwise. We’re probably more into feeding our bellies than feeding our imagination. But it is also annoyingly true that Lahore has several independent bookstores, especially Readings and The Last Word, which are thriving. Every other month there is a book fair taking place in the city’s many universities and the annual Lahore International Book Fair draws crowds in the thousands to buy books from dozens of local and international publishers and booksellers. For those who cannot make it to these, there are always the benevolent second-hand bookstores and the weekly Sunday Anarkali book bazar that holds something to read for everyone at throwaway. While the aforementioned Gallup & Gilani Pakistan survey suggests only 9 percent of Pakistanis read, for an entrepreneur like Awais, it is as if the majority of the 9 percent are in Lahore.
“I saw during my trips to Lahore that people want to buy good quality books at reasonable prices,” he says, “there is a desire among people to read. When I attended the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale, I immediately thought of bringing it to Lahore.”
As a first step, Awais and his Dubai based business partner collaborated with Andrew and Jacqueline to organize the sale in Dubai. Planning for Lahore started in early 2018. With all the government permissions and planning done, the Sale was finally brought to Lahore.
“It was initially hard to convince the authorities about allowing us to use the Expo Center for 24 hours a day for ten days straight, but we were able to convince them. Once approved, they alerted law enforcement and local staff to make sure we were supported,” adds Awais. “We have had no extraordinary issues in bringing the sale to Lahore, which is encouraging.”
What’s even more encouraging, and amusing, is people sheepishly walking into the hall at 1 am or 5 am to see if the sale is actually a 24 hours-a-day event as advertised. I did so as well and spent a most glorious Friday night picking up books from Paul Beatty, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Lee Child, Shirley Jackson, Virginia Woolf and many more. I even found a beautifully bound poetry collection by one of my favourite poets, Carol Ann Duffy. There’s something soul-stirring in buying books in the middle of the night.
While the claim of one million books is hard to verify, it holds true that there are books in several genres on sale, from some of the finest publishers in the world. In fiction, one can find contemporary literary fiction, science fiction, classics, romance, young adult fiction, horror, crime and mystery books. Bestsellers and literary award-winning books published as recently as 2018 can be found in the neatly stacked piles on the tables. A sizeable collection of graphic novels is also available. Non-fiction categories on display include art, design, architecture, fashion, history, self-help, cooking, engineering, business & management, arts & crafts, science, memoirs & biographies. By far the largest collection on display is of children’s books, catering to every age group.
As promised, there is something for everyone here, but not everything is for everyone. For every ten people gleefully buying books by the dozens, there are some who found the collection lacking. But as the sale’s website suggests, the Big Bad Wolf Sale is for people who are ready to hunt for a good book and a bargain, and that the Sale deals in excess/remainder books, so bringing in a literary wish list might prove to be disappointing.
For example, I was able to find the delightful Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, Britt-Marie Was Here by Frederik Backman, The Water Book by Alok Jha and the critically acclaimed graphic novel Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoni at extremely low prices on my second trip, but one friend returned empty-handed. Awais Khan, founder of “The Writing Institute” and author of an upcoming novel In The Company of Strangers ended up buying at least 14 books on his maiden trip and swore off going again to avoid over-spending. Madeeha Maqbool, a bibliophile, civil servant and book critic, forsook her fiction and history selections and bought several cookbooks instead once she reached the section, which has books from Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Moro Kitchen, Rachel Khoo, Heston Blumenthal, David Lebovitz, and many more contemporary chefs and restaurants. There is also a delightfully illustrated version of the universally lauded Italian cooking bible, The Silver Spoon Cookbook, for young, budding cooks. There was a father with his small family who bought books from almost every genre and racked up a bill of Rs. 68,000, among many others who were gladly parting with their money for their hauls.
Lastly, the most commendable thing I experienced at the Sale was that the organisers have donated a sizeable amount of books to the children studying in a school run by Slumabad, an initiative by Muhammad Sabir for “pakhiwas” or slum-dwelling families. The donation was made possible through a connection made by Punjab Group of Colleges, which is also sponsoring the Sale. People can buy these donated books and place them in a donation bin. Both the books and the money that is generated goes towards the uplift of the children ho wouldn’t be able to afford these otherwise.
With a few changes to their display (lower stacks so people can see the titles), less focus on offering variations of the same classics, and adding books about philosophy and theory, the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale is another great opportunity in Lahore for the 9 percent of us who still read.