Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” these words befit Saddar, which was once a favourite haunt for Karachi’s bookworms, yet its current state exudes a profound sense of sorrow.

The buildings are divided between assorted shops, dingy dwellings and rundown hotels. Its inhabitants come from all geographies and ethnicities. In this hotchpotch, one searches for the identity of an area which was once the heart of a vibrant and fast expanding city.

We all have heard stories of Saddar of yore when streets were washed every evening and the crème de la crème of society gathered in its bistros and bookshops. One struggles to find this narrative believable now.

The streets with their leprous bazaars are still visited by hundreds and are still flooded by merchandise.

But today, you find yourself largely bookless in Saddar.

It takes a days long expedition to find some of what has been lost.

Titbit bookshop

Tucked between Parsi fire temple and Jehangir restaurant on Daudpota road, Titbit book stall has been surviving since 1974.

The bookshop is tinier than the kitchen in most of the upscale apartments. The books lay on the floor due to the lack of space in the bookshelves.

On a casual day you would find the bookshop owner Mr. Salim chatting leisurely with his friends inside the tiny shop. He is never shy of striking up a conversation and giving his opinion on the changing landscape of Saddar and declining reading habits of Karachi denizens.

His collection is as eclectic as his clientele. A child came with her elder brother to buy ‘Diary of a wimpy kid’ while a middle aged man wanted a certain interpretation of religious text. Salim, however, has dealt mainly in English fiction, magazines and comics and is happy to convince his customers to shift their reading habits.

The topic of declining book culture drastically changes Mr Salim’s mood; he criticises parents and their negligence towards inculcating reading habits in their children.

“When parents don’t know anything about books themselves, what would they teach their children?” retorts Salim.

He also highlights the move towards the commercialisation of books that has occurred over the years with booksellers preferring to sell course books, particularly of O and A levels to earn greater profits.

“Literature, arts, history has hit a low and shopkeepers now prefer to run a business of academic books rather than selling fiction or poetry.”

Managing such a tiny shop has been a mammoth task. Most of the books range between Rs. 50 to 250 and generating enough revenue to run the shop has been difficult for Salim, but he remains adamant to run the bookstore for as long as he can.

He, however, is not very hopeful about what the future holds. He says that his kids see very little excitement in running a bookstore.

Favourite for: Pulp fiction, comics

Thomas and Thomas

A customer at the bookstore. — Photo by Farooq Soomro
A customer at the bookstore. — Photo by Farooq Soomro

Inarguably one of the oldest book stores in the city, Thomas and Thomas near Regal chowk has been widely popular among book lovers over the years.

Now, a lone ceiling fan slowly whirs away, and only a couple of tube lights illuminate the store. Some shelves at the back remain vacant due to water leakage; the books however, remain neatly stacked for display, almost untouched.

Although customers are rarely seen at the store now, renowned poets, philosophers and politicians were once seen scanning these same book shelves years ago.

“Former president Zia ul Haq came to visit once, unannounced and without any protocol. Benazir Bhutto’s entire family came here regularly too, for quite some time,” says Mahmood, who has been associated with the bookshop since 1988.

The store was founded by a British gentleman before the current owner Mr. Muhammad Yunus’s father bought it in 1948. At that time, it wasn’t the only store in the area, Mahmood could count many on his fingertips; Paramount, Pak American, Kitab Mahal, Greenwich among many others.

One by one these stores shut down, only to be replaced by electronics and jewelry shops.

Today, Thomas and Thomas remains the only literary torch bearer in the vicinity.

Apart from the dwindling interest in reading, the landscape of Saddar has changed too, there are parking restrictions and immense traffic in the area directly affecting the influx of customers. “We only get 10 to 15 customers every day, and only one or two actually come in with the intention of buying anything.”

“A lot of people have urged us to shut this store and open a food joint instead, but we declined any such offers.. What would people say, we used to sell books and now we sell pakoray?”

One of the booksellers at Thomas & Thomas. — Photo by Farooq Soomro
One of the booksellers at Thomas & Thomas. — Photo by Farooq Soomro

Favourite for: classic literature, history and politics

Royal Book Shop

Royal Book Depot was once found in the street behind Regal Chowk, but few years ago it shifted to the basement in Rex Centre near Zainab market.

Mahmood, the salesman at Thomas and Thomas, provided directions but it took some time to locate the store, hidden in the midst of garment shops.

The store itself is large compared to the others; it even has a few offices inside where editors were busy working. In the absence of any ventilation in the room, it has a deeply ingrained smell of old books.

The owner, Jamshed Mirza, says the company specialises in printing educational books which secures a steady stream of revenues, which as a result, ensures its survival.

However, dealing with public institutes has meant that the bookstore finds it difficult to get their invoices processed in due time.

Favourite for: Pakistan’s history

Aaj ki Kitabein

Some of the recent literary magazines in Pakistan have been published by Aaj ki kitabein. Mahmood said the bookshop could be found near Zainab Market, but he admitted he had not seen it himself.

We note the address of one of the magazines and once again set out in search. After moving in circles, asking a dozen shopkeepers, we finally found the store on the third floor of the shopping mall adjacent to Zainab Market.

Aaj ki kitabein has been set up by Ajmal Kamal, a former banker, who decided to open a publishing house in late 90s. The small bookshop contains both the publications of his printing house and from elsewhere. Most of the books are in Urdu and few have been imported from India as well.

Favourite for: Urdu literature

Regal Chowk book bazaar

A bookseller at Regal chowk. — Photo by Farooq Soomro
A bookseller at Regal chowk. — Photo by Farooq Soomro

Bookshops are struggling for prime space in present day Saddar. Titbit and Thomas & Thomas have barely survived; Royal Book Depot is in a basement while Aaj ki Kitabein is situated on the third floor of a shopping mall.

The changing landscape forced many book sellers to converge into book bazaars which take place across the city.

Of that tradition, Book Mela on Regal chowk is the foremost and most popular. It is populated by traditional booksellers and even people who want to make some money out of their book collections. They sell their books on carts, on the floor and from the pick-ups which transport books here from all over the city.

Customers come in from different parts of the city with varying demands; one in search of books for Mass communication while another looks for health and fitness magazines for his salon.

Pick up vans at Regal chowk. — Photo by Farooq Soomro
Pick up vans at Regal chowk. — Photo by Farooq Soomro

Unfortunately, the streets are not the most conducive to selling books. The dirt and garbage is damaging, and you can see sewerage water overflowing here and there. This, however, does not deter people.

The booksellers and book lovers continue to gather here every week. All for their love for books.

Favourite for: everything!

Frere hall Book Mela

A lot of book sellers at Regal chowk mention that they set up stalls at Frere hall simultaneously. Though not part of Saddar technically, it attracts a number of people due to better accessibility and ample space.

The place has its own set of challenges however. It was closed for public for almost a decade due to security concerns and even now the main parking lot is off-limits for the bookstalls due to frequent exhibitions that take place here. Even during our visit, the book mela was curtailed because of an exhibition.

The stalls at Frere have a diverse range of books from children fiction to Urdu literature, many of which were rare copies hardly available in stores elsewhere.

“Books by Abdur Rahman Chughtai like Amal-i Chughtaʾi, Muraqqaʿ-i Chughtaʾi are hardly available anywhere else now,” says Yusuf, who is known by all the small booksellers at Regal and Frere Hall.

How do these book stalls manage to get a hold of them?

“A person spends ages collecting books but after their death, the family usually gives it all away to a thaila thinking its waste of space,” says Yusuf,

From the prime retail spaces to the basements and streets, books have found their survival perilous in modern day Saddar. If they totally disappear from the social scene, Khakum budhan, Saddar would lose its little remaining charm even more.