Old Books Unlimited
began immediately after Independence when four young booksellers
started selling second-hand books and magazines on the pavement
outside the Balaka cinema hall. Within years, that small step
became a giant leap forward for the bookworms of the country.
With prices of both local and international books spiralling
at a geometric progression, Islamia Book Market in Nilkhet
provides the readers books and magazines at unbelievably affordable
prices. This, along with its close proximity to most of the
major educational institutions in the city, have made Nilkhet
a lucrative place to run any business. Ownership of shops
that were once upon a time sold at Tk 400 now costs a whopping
Tk 3 lakh. Nilkhet means books, and of course business too.
Nilkhet's Islamia Book Market's history is
almost as old as 68-year-old Abdur Rashid Miah's love affair
with recycled books. And like Nilkhet, it happened by chance.
Rashid used to assist Abbas, a West-Pakistani bookseller,
in a bookshop by the Naz cinema hall in Gulistan during the
early sixties. In the aftermath to Bangladesh's liberation,
Abbas fled to Karachi assigning the bookshop to Rashid. "I
was so scared," Rashid says; "I had to take the
books away to a safer place because riots broke out; and everybody
knew it was a West Pakistani's shop."
top of it all, Rashid had no idea where to keep them. He later
dumped all the 1800 books on the balcony of Balaka cinema
hall. After coming back from his village to the newly liberated
Dhaka, Rashid was skeptical about getting back the books he
left. "So many people have died in the war; and these
are only books," Rashid says. But, to his utter surprise,
the young bookseller found his books intact. "I cried
that day," Rashid says.
he met three other booksellers, Enayet Karim, Abul and Moti
Miah, on the pavement in front of New Market. "The place
was quite different then," recalls Rashid. "The
whole Nilkhet was like a big football maidan; only
there were some Biharis…they used to do menial jobs
in different offices, some of them even raised cows. Nilkhet
was pretty much like a village then," Rashid says.
Things started changing rapidly immediately
after independence. Within months, more and more businessmen
joined Rashid, Enayet, Abul and Moti on the footpath in selling
old books and magazines. Barrister Nurul Islam Talukdar, a
lawyer, meanwhile, bought a big piece of land adjacent to
the Balaka cinema hall: "Small shops were built with
corrugated tin," Rashid says. And as the place was nearer
to some of the major educational institutions of the country,
the shops primarily focused on selling books. "There
were plenty of stolen books around the city at that time,"
Rashid remembers. "Most of the books we got were looted
from different bookshops and libraries across the city,"
soon Rashid and his fellow booksellers faced a huge problem
that threatened to destroy their small success: the diminishing
supply of looted books. "We were getting worried,"
Moti admits. Fortunately, they were soon relieved of their
anxiety. Rashid, on behalf of the booksellers, started visiting
old-newspaper vendors' places. "Loads of foreigners,
who used to stay in Dhanmandi, usually sold their books off
to the old- newspaper vendors before leaving the country,"
he says. Rashid established a good rapport with a storehouse
of old-newspapers; and within a few days Nilkhet found a new
lifeline, which is still up and running.
But not all books in the Islamia Market come
from old newspaper vendors. Golam Sarwar Shopon runs a successful
business in Nilkhet, and instead of old newspaper sellers
he relies on middlemen for his regular supply of books and
a Master of Arts in Sociology, has a unique story to narrate.
"As a student I always came here for reference books.
Sometimes I wandered around the place just leafing through
books, reading the blurbs or skimming down the contents pages
of magazines," says Shopon. And that was all. "I
did not really know how these books were coming. Whenever
I read an old book I didn't even think once who the book belonged
to before me," Shopon continues.
But Shopon's indifference disappeared on a
Friday evening of 1991 purely for practical considerations.
"At the end of my masters I was getting prepared for
the BCS exams," Shopon recalls; "I was living on
my own," he continues, "and it became quite difficult
for me to meet my everyday expenses."
toyed with the idea of starting a bookshop of his own for
the time being. "We lost five years of our lives in a
'session jam' during Ershad's regime, and I thought what if
I just flunked in the BCS," the 38-year-old businessman
when Shopon entered the business with an initial capital of
Tk 1400, his parents did not mind at all. "They wanted
me to concentrate more on the BCS, but my parents were happy
that I was earning money so soon after finishing my studies,"
Shopon says. "I never wanted to take it as a profession,"
he continues. But Shopon's worst nightmare came true when
he failed to pass even the preliminary test of the BCS exams;
"I was so depressed. I locked myself up in my village
home for three days," recalls Shopon.
Through sheer endurance and unflinching resolve
Shopon got over this setback. Now Shopon earns Tk 30,000 every
month, and the business, which was started with Tk 16000 borrowed
from friends, now has a working capital of Tk 40 lakh.
Islamia Market is a reader's paradise. Everyday
hundreds of people walk down the narrow allies of the market,
searching for books of their interest. Some of the narrow
passages that snake through the 3000sft area of Nilkhet are
not clearly visible even in daylight. But this hardly deters
readers who flock together irrespective of their age and gender.
Noor was only seven when he first went to Nilkhet. "My
father is a great fan of Western Classics. We are from the
middle income group, and we don't have any other place to
buy books than Nilkhet," Shahed says. "Any Louis
L'amor classic would cost Tk 300-400 in any bookshops in Gulshan,
but in Nilkhet it won't be more than Tk 20 even now,"
now teaches Mathematics in an English medium school, but he
can vividly recall the day he first went to Nilkhet. "Abba
took me to the market to buy 'Amaar Boi', you won't
be able to fathom how excited I was," Shahed says with
a broad smile. Going to Nilkhet to buy books turned into an
enduring passion. Shahed's mother did not like the idea of
her son reading comic books, as she thought it was a waste
of her husband's hard earned money. "Amma even slapped
me once when she found an old copy of GQ under my pillow,"
Shahed smiles. Shahed was in the Tenth grade then.
Shahed's mother put all the hard feelings
aside when she found an old copy of Anondolok on the footpath
of Islamia Market. "She always loved to watch old Uttam
Kumar movies. And as she was crossing the road she found the
magazine with a rare photograph of Uttam Kumar on the cover,
staring at her," Shahed says. The ban on Nilkhet was
the comic books that Shahed loved to read are now a rare commodity
in Nilkhet. "Old comic books are not coming to the market
that much nowadays," says Shopon. "Young people
are reading less and watching cartoons on television more,"
he continues. "The types of books people crave for have
been changed with time," Shopon points out, "It
has something to do with the change in people's tastes I guess."
Daniel Steels, good old Mills and Boons, and western classics
are all being sold like hotcakes, he says.
First timers will be surprised to find the
hardcover first-edition copy of Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus
or old issues of the Rolling Stones. Shops on the northern
corner of the market mostly sell modern classics. But books
that have just come out of the market a month or two ago are
not difficult to come by either. A copy of Martin Amis's new
novel, The Yellow Dog, was on display in a shop last Saturday.
Nilkhet became a necessity for Shahed when he entered Bangladesh
University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). "Most
of the books on engineering, and the medical journals the
students study in the country are not available in the country,"
says Shahed. "I couldn't see an original copy of any
book I studied in my whole BUET life," he says; "even
now teachers usually give the textbooks to photocopy shops
in Nilkhet and tell the students to collect the Xeroxed copy
of the books from the shops," Shahed continues.
This same old story repeats itself in most
of the major institutions of the country. For thousands of
English-medium students Nilkhet is the only regular source
of reference books and question-papers. Most of them are pirated
ones though; and Abdur Rashid, one of the pioneers, think
this practice is deplorable and a sheer insult to the writers'
hard work. "I know some unscrupulous businessmen who
photocopy books only to sell it at a lower price. Some even
send people to different libraries to lift books," he
Rashid himself is a victim of such malpractice. During the
late eighties he found two copies of Grease's Anatomy Lessons
in the old-newspaper vendors at Dhanmandi 27. "I didn't
know that these two books were sold by Kadir and Chowdhury,
two famous crooks of the city; being an idiot I couldn't even
notice the seal of the Asia Foundation on the cover of the
book " the sixty-eight-year old bookseller says.
All hell broke loose for Rashid Miah when
two Asian Foundation staff members turned up two days later
with the police. A warrant was issued against him for stealing
two books from the Foundation. Rashid was forced to sell the
shop at a meager Tk 300; for the last eight years Rashid has
been selling old-books and magazines on the footpath in front
of Nazrul's Mazaar. Every story, it seems, does not have a
(R) thedailystar.net 2004