November 30, 2015
The next chapter for Islamabad’s biggest bookstore
by Liam O’Brien
Rob Nordland at the New York Times opens his recent piece on Islamabad’s Saeed Book Bank with an indelible image.
After his father died, Ahmad Saeed took over the office on the ground floor of the family’s storied bookstore here, Saeed Book Bank. Then the elderly men started visiting, seeking to settle old debts.
“They all apologized and said they had tried to see my father while he was alive but his office was always too crowded and they were embarrassed,” Mr. Saeed said.
Five times such men arrived, hat in hand, not just to pay their respects to the son and family, but also to say they wanted to pay for books they had shoplifted as children. Mr. Saeed said his father, Saeed Jan Qureshi, who died of heart failure in September, would have been amused: He had always regarded book theft by children as an investment in a future where people still read, and thus become his customers.
The ongoing saga of Pakistan’s Saeed Book Bank, which has grown to be one of Asia’s largest bookstore while dealing primarily in English-language texts, is at least 50 years in the making. Self-described as “founded with the aim of “making books assessable & knowledge affordable” through a broad inventory and personal service”, the store has served Islamabad for the past 15 years.
Its Peshawar location closed in 2000 after 36 years due to rising political tensions in the area, as well as falling sales figures. In an interview given earlier this year, Qureshi detailed some of the unique constraints faced by Pakistani bookstores, as well as the advantage offered by the Islamabad location:
The Pakistani government has never taken steps to encourage the book business. Importing a book costs 18 per cent of the price, including taxes and transportation costs. In India the book business is thriving because the government offered publishers lucrative incentives.
The government even buys back any unsold book stocks from publishers at 10 per cent higher than the cost.
For Saeed Book Bank, in particular, business is good because of our scale. We import much of our stock. Publishers around the world know us and offer us better prices than smaller buyers. This allows us to offer competitive prices. Some publishers in the United Kingdom and the United States even offer us refunds on any unsold stock.
Secondly, even though it is a small city, Islamabad is a big market for books. It’s a city of diplomats and officers, so many people read. Book lovers from all over the region, come and shop at Saeed Book Bank. We even export books to South Africa, Nigeria and China.
This, plus owning the building that houses the store, has allowed Saeed Book Bank to provide such an extensive and well-curated selection of titles.
The result is a bookstore of impressive scope, quirky and catholic. “Islamic Fashion,” a glossy coffee table book and a best-seller, vies for shelf space with “Queer Studies.”
A thick condolence book for Mr. Qureshi, the third so far, sits on a counter, which sags under the weight of a couple hundred miniature books as well. A few rows away, an entire shelf is given over to Noam Chomsky, 26 titles in all, which may well be more than any bookstore in the world displays for the radical linguist and philosopher.
“Honestly, Chomsky sells here,” Mr. Saeed said.
The ground-level reality of indie bookselling abroad is, it seems, both drastically different from here, yet similarly inspiring.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.