By Mohammad A. Qayyum
– Newbie Guide to Secondhand and/or cheap books around Lahore –
With the exchange rate ever spiraling away from us, reading English books in Lahore has become a prohibitively expensive past time. Moreover, the type of books in terms of substance and genre – why don’t we ever have original texts when we carry biographies and criticisms of writers is beyond me – is relatively limited. The old ports-of-call like Ferozesons on the Mall, Marwa books next to it and Variety Books in Liberty and the new (the lovely Last Word inside Hotspot in Gaddafi Stadium) tend to be expensive, so the book addict has to look elsewhere for his fix these days.
‘Readings’ on Main Boulevard above all stands as an oasis for the book reading public, a shop by a book lover for booklovers. The prices on new books are relatively low and while the secondhand books collection is now less than before, Readings does keep replenishing its stock. So, a regular visit is often merited. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the books available at Readings are not just limited to the old standards of English Literature that are found around town. A lot of the books you get at Readings are not available elsewhere (for any price, much less cut-price.)
The other must visit quasi-new-books bookshop in town is the basement bookshop next to Yummy 36 (behind the Shell petrol station) in Liberty. The owners there bring in containers of books (mostly from Australia) and one gets some really nice bargains. If you are looking for technical, management or computer books, this should be your first port of call.
Old book shops are dotted around town in most markets, but most tend to concentrate only on secondhand school books, so one has to keep a note of the better ones worth visiting. Anarkali is probably the best first place to visit. It should be visited both during weekdays and on weekends separately, for different reasons. Barring the couple of magazine shops on the main road, in order to get at the books you have to take the alleys snaking out of the main anarkali road. One on the right after the Islamic books shops and the other one into a plaza a bit further on, on your left when walking in from the Mall.
On your left you find, easily the best and most substantial used bookshop, Ahmad Book Shop. A small doublestorried shop at the back of a plaza (accessed from the main road), its owner is a connoisseur and though the books can be a tad overpriced, the collection is easily the best. Pity the owner’s venture of a shop in Gulberg Main Market failed as it would have been so much more convenient.
One your right into an alley (just before Ahmad Bookshop on your right), there are three or four nice but limited old bookshops. These are worth investigating as they can have some bargains especially in philosophy, biography and old artbooks.
Anarkali on the weekend shuts down and old booksellers from across town put out their books in the service lane on the Mall side. This Sunday Bazar is often worth a visit but the quality of books available has successively gone down. Make sure also that you go underdressed and it pays to haggle. I have noticed that the price quoted by the Seller goes progressively higher depending on how well one is dressed. It perhaps also says something about my dress sense that I always find great bargains.
Outside of Anarkali, the other best old bookshop is curiously now in the Main Market. It is directly opposite you if you come in from the Main Boulevard, across from the roundabout, with a huge sign proclaiming ‘OLD BOOKS.’ You can’t miss it. Their collection of old books is quite impressive as are the prices which though a tad marked up for being in Gulberg, are still affordable. The shop remains a must visit and it is particularly brilliant for their collection of leather bound vintage books.
There are some decent used book shops in Gulberg too. The ones in the basement opposite Gino’s are decent, though they seem to have gown down in quality and tend to be concentrating on thriller novels and magazines.
For Magazines and comics, there is surprisingly a larger collection of shops. The best two shop are in Raja Centre (on the Main Boulevard side). The prices can be high but can be habbled down. admittedly these days magazines supply has dried up but these shops are selling off their old stock cheaply so they might be a visit immediately.
I am yet to find any decent old bookshops in Defence or other parts of town. There are a few, but in terms of quality they are rather poor.
Overall, when surveying the bookshops in Lahore, one can help but also not feel a tinge of sadness at their paucity and lack of quality. I have always tended to believe that the intellectual strength of a city and a people is to be judged by their bookshops (especially their old bookshops). That is perhaps why there are next to no old bookshops in Dubai for example. As for Lahore, there are next to no recent or cutting edge books available in Lahore and one is usually stuck with old standards. This perhaps speaks volumes of our moribund mental and intellectual state.
For the really rabid booklovers among us, a trip to other cities is often merited and some remarkable books can be picked up. Islamabad and Rawalpindi offer perhaps some of the best choices: Rawalpindi for value for money and Islamabad for selection. Karachi remains a bit too far off and still not as good for books (it is offers an excellent selection of magazine though (for example at Khori Gardens or Sunday Bazaar). A review of other cities is however for some other time.