A century of bookselling

Focal point for scholars: (l to r) Dr Noman Naqvi, Prof Patrick Laude, Habib Abbasi, Noman Baig-- Pix courtesy Patrick Laude

By Zubeida Mustafa

NOT many readers would have visited Juna Market, the commercial hub of Karachi where hardware and spices compete with halwa puri to find buyers.

In the ocean of commodities catering to hedonistic pleasures stands a lone modest-looking bookshop that seeks to nourish the mind. It has been doing that for 102 years, an anomaly among its worldly surroundings.

More fascinating than the Abbasi Kutubkhana is the man who sits behind the counter, Habib Husain Abbasi, whose maternal grandfather founded this shop in 1910.

When he died in 1941, his son-in-law Abdul Rasool, who had been his apprentice for over two decades, took charge. His son, the present owner, took over in 1988 when his father passed away suddenly. He had just started writing his memoirs. Habib’s training was his 28-year apprenticeship with his father. He, however, managed to find time to carry on his studies at the Sindh Madressah and the S.M. College from where he graduated.

He is a bookseller in the true meaning the word. In his book Sketches of Some Booksellers of the Times of Dr Samuel Johnson, E. Marston writes of one of the ilk: “He was not a bookseller, but a gentleman who dealt in books.”

It clearly emerges from the sketches of the 10 or so individuals belonging to the 17th-18th century British book trade that being in the company of books and reading them avidly left a stamp on the men of the trade. Erudition, scholarship and eloquence became second nature to them. Intellectual discourse about men of learning was their favourite pastime.

If you read about Sultan Khan, the key figure in The Bookseller of Kabul by award-winning journalist Asne Seierstad, you will find similar attributes in him. In Seierstad’s words, the bookseller of Kabul felt let down by his country, time and again. After spending hours listening to his stories, she felt that “he was himself a living piece of Afghan cultural history, a living book on two feet”.

Habib Abbasi fits these descriptions aptly. Bookselling is a phenomenon which allows books to subsume the seller so totally that he becomes a part of them. Habib doesn’t see his work as a commercial activity. For him his vocation is an act of promoting education and knowledge — khidmat-i-khalq (service to humanity) he calls it.

Abbasi Kutubkhana: (from l to r) Habib Abbasi and Patrick Laude -- Pix courtesy Patrick Laude

By the time he was old enough to be browsing among the books his father stocked his shelves with so lovingly, the bookshop had already acquired a name. It became a focal point for scholars, publishers and other booksellers in the quest of knowledge. They came from as far-off places as Iran, Afghanistan and all over India. They still do — the latest visitor being Patrick Laude, professor of theology from Georgetown University and currently based in Doha.

Habib grew up in the company of books and scholars. He recalls the great names from the literary world who would visit the kutubkhana and fraternise with his father such as Allama Abdul Aziz Memon, the vice chancellor of Damascus university, Sindh’s Shamsul Ulema Dr Daudpota, lawyer Khalid Ishaq, well-known writer Pir Hisamuddin Rashidi, Sindh’s renowned scholars Mirza Kalich Beg and Pir Aga Jan Sirhindi, historian Rais Ahmed Jafri and many others. He is a living encyclopaedia on these legendary men of learning.

When I visited his shop on a public holiday — on a working day it is a challenge even for a pedestrian to negotiate his way through the entangled traffic — there was a constant flow of friends and visitors who knew that the Abbasi Kutubkhana was the place to go to for rest and recreation of the intellectual kind. Hence I found myself in pleasant company.

A bookshop is known by the books it keeps. There were no volumes of flashy pulp fiction adorning its shelves. There was a wealth of scholarship crowding the place from encyclopaedias of all variety in Urdu, Arabic and Persian to dictionaries of different languages. Fiction is of the classical variety such as Tilism-i-Hoshruba and Alif Laila which have resurfaced in popular interest.

How does Habib see the future prospects of the book industry in Pakistan? He is reticent and as a matter of principle keeps a low profile. He says he lacks the four key qualities for successful bookselling, namely Qaroon ka khazana (wealth), umr-i-Nooh (long life), sabr-i-Ayub (patience) and Ibn-i-Sina ka ilm (knowledge). He, however, suggests that big literary institutions and publishers — the Iqbal Academy, OUP, Institute of Islamic Culture, he names a few — should start a new tradition of working jointly in the field of book publishing. He feels that they have the resources, the know-how, manpower and networking capacity to produce researched books as agents of learning and scholarship. He feels that thus alone can they counter the challenges posed by piracy and junk publishing that have proliferated in the market. He also stresses the need to broaden our translation base which he feels is not sufficiently developed in Pakistan.

His suggestion reminds me of the two booksellers’ clubs that Marston writes about in his book cited above. One was the Friends of Literature comprising a group of London booksellers who met once a month to discuss literary affairs and also take business decisions on joint publications. The jointly published works were then divided among the booksellers to sell. Paradise Lost, Robinson Crusoe and Goldsmith’s Essays were some outstanding products of this club. There is no denying that we need more researched publications.

Source: Dawn

13 thoughts on “A century of bookselling

  1. Excellent thoughts, I have visited Juna Market,- what a remarkable story reminds be of my childhood days

  2. Enjoyed reading this article. Written very well. Just compare the number of book houses to the number of designer clothes outlets and ads. A society driven by Sana Safi Naz and HSYs .

  3. up up my friend and quit your books,
    or surely you will grow double;
    up up my friend and clear your looks,
    why all this toil and trouble?

    (william wordsworth, no less)

    our version might be:

    up up my friend and quit your books,
    or reading will cause you trouble;
    up up my friend and fire away,
    your reward in heaven shall double.

    badri raina

  4. Excellant write up. How the writer got to this neglected subject of BOOKSHOPS is indeed amazing. I am reminded of a few bookshops that now lie peacefully in their graves, namely KITAB MAHAL on Elphinstone Street. Then there were two kiosks – one opposite Regal Cinema and other opposite Capitol Cinema. Both these kiosks attracted waiting passengers for bus and passing pedistrians. One had to wait few minutes to get to the front to glance at the books of choice. What great days were they.

  5. I remember my school days when I use to buy Gujrati Text book from the Abbasi Kutubkhana
    because only shop offer the Gujrati Text books, After long time it was nostalgic for me
    though I have left Pakistan long ago I have travelled lot and seen the verry larege book shops rather I can say
    complex of the Books, I remember the days when I was stand all day helping customer to select books or guide them
    to locate the desired book at Pak American Boook shop on zaibu nissa street after completing my intermediate for three months for which I was not geting any pay rather I was free to select a book of my choice from the shop.
    It sad that Karachi has lost all large book shops If I compare, recently I have visited Ahmedabd Inida, a small city compare to Karachi but have number of very large shops consisiting of multiple floors and have student corner where any student come and read any books he desire to read. Agianst all odds Abbasi Kutubkhana is still there I was galde to know and thank you for providing me the a reason to visiualise those narrow streets of Juna Market

    Antriks Raj


  6. Another great article with a heart,Zubeda. Thanks for uncovering this hidden treasure of Karachi,and introducing to and honoring the 'gentleman who deals in books'. The history of Mr Abbasi and the Kutubkhana will inspire many to visit the book shop,especially since it is open during holidays.Many of grew up surrounded by books,and i remember my father going off in search of rare publications to add to his collection,perhaps Kutubkhana was one of the places he visited many years ago.
    I hope Mr Abbasi s suggestions will be heeded by publishers and literary organisations. The enthusiastic response and attendance at the recent Karachi Literature festival and the profileration of new works in various genres gives us hope that all is not lost.

  7. Have benefited from the write up. Wish to viist the shop. Can I find the adress or phone number
    to enable me reach the place. thanks. iqbalalavi

  8. Juna Market is one of the exciting places I would love to visit in the future. Knowing the shop was founded in 1910 makes more eager to see it personally.

    – Blake

  9. Legacy of Kutubkhana is Live and would remain Live.

    Books never betray any one and gives full company to any one in distress, sorrow, difficult period, journey,etc. Books never tell a lie nor Book would change statement or loyalty like wise human beings. Books are like 'never failing friends'.

    But the Internet is changing the scenario.

  10. It is amazing to read this article,but one who knows the culture and congestion at jodia bazar is bound to appreciate the owners for there patience as a normal person could not reach this place.One more thing it is beyond the reach of common and middle class people to buy books for reading.

  11. As a booklover, it truly is refreshing to read such an article.In fact such articles are not only a source of inspiration to the few book lovers left, but may help in creating awareness to a lost treasure.

  12. Excellent article.About time Habib Abbassi s contribution in carrying on the family concern so admirably recognized.The fact is that his selfless devotion to this noble task distinguishes him from his contemporaries .May God bless him with a long life

  13. What a delight to read this wonderful article which catapulted me back 60 years-plus in the past. Juna market was on my daily beat on my way back from School in Princess Street, via City Station to Karachi Airport where I lived in those days in late 40s. Even to this day, I can tell that crowded street like the back of my hand and can, mentally, negotiate each and every corner of it. A student then, I visited the Kutub Khana a number of times largely for items of stationery. I revisited it after a long break in late 70s looking desperately for a rare and tiny book of Urdu poetic supplications for my late mother. And sure enough, to my surprise and, indeed, great delight, my wish was instantly granted. Remarkable was the fact that the gentleman knew not only that he did have this rare, discontinued publication in stock but also knew where exactly to find it, which he instantly did. And that was without recourse to any catalogue, computer or any other aid for that matter. It left me awestruck in amazement and admiration. My last visit was about 10 years later when I was looking for a Gujrati translation of the Holy Qura’n for a friend and, surely once again, I was instantly obliged. The article provided a much cherished occasion for a trip down the memory lane. I enjoyed the article which is superbly written.

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