PESHAWAR: When it came to books, Kamal Khan’s choice of shops was limited to one. Easily accessible and well-stocked, the Shaheen Bookstore situated on University Road is where Khan went to buy books as he prepared for the competitive examination.
One day, when he approached the book store in the afternoon, he found the store closed, with a poster displayed on the door. It said: ““The entire society is in grasp of moral degradation, senselessness, extremism and terrorism because of their ignorance. People don’t have the habit of reading anymore. So libraries and books stores have no meaning for such [a] society. Under such circumstances, we are forced to close down our bookstore.”
“I was shocked at the contents of the poster at the store’s entrance,” said Khan, 30. He told News Lens Pakistan it was the second bookstore in Peshawar that had closed down in recent years for various reasons. “No wonder, the bookstores are now being converted to grocery shops or those selling stationery for children.”
Shaheen Bookstore was opened back in the nineties. Since its closure, Khan has been subscribing to online bookstores to get books. Riaz Gul, who used to manage the Shaheen Bookstore told News Lens Pakistan that he had witnessed a gradual decline in customers in the wake of conflict in the region. He said the entire society had moved away from books due to extremism and radicalization in the region.
“Our income was declining by the day and it had become difficult to sustain the shop so we closed down,” said Gul. Back in 2007, Saeed Book Bank, a leading bookstore in Peshawar, was closed down and shifted business to Islamabad. The Bank is now one of the largest bookstores in Asia providing varieties of books to readers in the country’s capital.
With Shaheen Bookstore closed, the London Bookstore is the only large store in the provincial metropolitan with books on diverse subjects like history, culture, governance, fiction, current affairs and general knowledge.
The manager of London Bookstore doesn’t agree that the number and interest of customers in books have declined. “The readers’ choice of books may have changed but sales haven’t decreased,” said Aqeel-ur-Rehman who manages the London Bookstore. “In the past, people used to ask for poetry by famous poets like Ahmad Faraz and Parveen Shakir. Now they ask for fiction. Novels written by Humaira Ahmad, Hashim Nadim, Nasim Hijaai and Shahabnama written by Qudratullah Shahab are the top selling books in our store”
Established before partition, the store has over 0.5 million books beside the books related to the courses of schools and colleges. Rehman said they hadn’t experienced any drop in the number of customers, adding that demand for textbooks of schools and colleges was higher than other books.
When asked about the impact of terrorism on book sales, he categorically denied it. “The readers may have converted to online reading but terrorism hasn’t had any impact on readership.”
He went on to say people from all walks of life visited his shop for books. Sometimes, he said, customers asked for books and if the price was high, they left saying they would read it online for free.
The sale of children books, he said, had increased over the last few years. “Women along with their children ask for books meant to improve the children’s reading skills.”
According to Rehman, one reason for decline in sale of books was the easy availability of pirated books everywhere in the city. He said Peshawar’s Sadar bazaar had small shops selling pirated books for cheap prices.
The academics and intellectuals, however, blame the education system and its narrow outlook for the declining trend in reading books. Professor Faizullah Jan, who teaches at the journalism school in the University of Peshawar, said textbooks taught to children in schools seek to put shackles on children’s mind through concocted stories and fabricated histories.
“When schools don’t create thirst for reading in children, then bookstores will have no place in the society,” said Jan. He said there were no community libraries where those interested in reading could go and study books of their choices as in the west.
Jan said there were community libraries in the west, established on the basis of population, where readers could study books free of cost. “Such facilities need to be provided to readers in our society to establish the culture of book reading.”
This article originally appeared in News Lens and has been reproduced with permission.