Books by the Street
By Shoaib Hashmi


So Lahore is off on one of its tacks again, and I must admit this time it is a most welcome one. You see we already have all of three 'Food Streets' in addition to the old 'Paan Street', if you accept the name for the 'Paan Gali' and the 'Sirion-Payon Waala Bazaar'. That is the 'Street of the Heads and Trotters' and it is inside 'Mochi Gate' and don't try mucking with me because I come from there.
Well the good news is that now we are to have a 'Book Street' on Thornton Road, which as I said is most welcome -- and a bit peculiar. Because the initial announcement said that the authorities had already been able to line up forty bookshops -- and all of two thousand books! That, according to my calculation comes to a total of fifty books per bookshop, which, by any criterion is less that the amount of fried fish Haji Sardar sells each day in the food street. But, as a friend said in defense, "May be them are Big books"!
It does put one in mind of how the bookshop scene has changed in the city. I am not complaining about the numbers because I can remember a time when there were much fewer shops, but the city was smaller then, and the shops were different! Like there was the 'Ideal Book Shop' on the corner of the Mall and Anarkali, and it is like a half forgotten dream.
They had elegant bookcases made of Burma Teak, and all over there were leather covered sofas where you could sit and browse through a book -- and if you did, an attendant would come round and discreetly switch on a shaded light behind you to make you welcome. If you couldn't afford to buy a book, you could sit and read it there, because there was a sign which said, "The purpose of a book is to be read". And if you couldn't finish it in one day, you put a special tasselled bookmark, provided by the store, in it and they wouldn't sell it. I remember Prof. Safdar Mir once raising a fuss with the management because they inadvertently sold a tome he wasn't finished with; and they apologized and arranged for another copy! That was civilized bookselling with a heart in the right place.
Like there used to be -- maybe still is -- 'The Shakespeare Bookshop' in Paris; and if they saw that you were hanging around and seemed to know your way through the books, they'd send you a cup of coffee and a croissant. Then we came upon this old bookshop in Highgate in London. This old man sat surrounded by so many old and wonderful books, all obviously read many times over. He too sent us cups of tea, and we selected a few books and took them to the counter, and he smiled a gentle smile and shook his head and said sorry the books were not for sale!
He had spent his working life on plantations in South America, and these were all the books he had collected in a lifetime of reading. Now he was retired and he liked being surrounded by his books, so he'd opened a bookshop, but soon realized he couldn't bear to part with any of them, so he didn't. Any stray customer was an excuse to give him a cuppa and a little chat and that was it. I seem to recall that eventually he did give us an old Bible or something, but that is not the point. The point is that he'd not merely read the books, he'd learnt!
The 'Ideal' is no more and has been supplanted by one of your usual supermarkets. We did the best we could and bought up the teakwood bookshelves for the library at Government College, so all is not lost. But most is. There are dozens of bookshops in town -- and they are all chockfull of computer manuals and 'How to...' books. There are also the more fashionable stores that call themselves bookshops, but all they have got are oodles of cards! Cards for birthdays and valentines and for brothers and sisters and mothers-in-law. Also chocolates and ice creams.
If you want to buy an actual book you go to one of those basements where they get them in containers and sell them by the weight. Or you go to the side streets of Anarkali and rummage through the second hand bookshops. On Sundays they spread out on to the footpaths, which are called sidewalks! So it does the heart good to see that someone wants to set up a 'Book Street'. I think it is Raina in 'Arms and the Man' who crows to Bluntschelli that her father has a library in the house -- and in the library there is even 'A Book'!


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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