I hoard books like old desi aunties hoard bobby pins. A visit to any of Pakistan’s top bookstores – whether it is Reading’s, Liberty, The Last Word, Vanguard or Variety – ends with me walking to the check-out counter with a heap of books, heavier than a boulder and more expensive than a week’s groceries.

My daughter, on the other hand, is all about minimalism. Her stock usually comes from Reading’s online store and then she only buys what she’s sure to read. She stares at my receipt at the bookstore check-out counter and rolls her eyes at me. “Liberty Books is 30% off for the World Book Day sale online.” She says.

Sameer Saleem is the director of Liberty Books, which, established in 1961, has forged strong connections with distributors and customers alike. With 14 stores all over Pakistan, the chain has a vast range of books and enjoys sole distributorship of some of the world’s best-known magazines, like Newsweek, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest and The Economist. When the novel coronavirus first hit headlines, the store had to close. Liberty’s sales halved, and customers didn’t seem as if they were adopting to the new normal quickly. This pushed Saleem to pivot swiftly to the online space.

“One of the biggest challenges was cash flow to stay afloat,” he said. “I had to do this without laying off any of the people who make Liberty Books what it is today. I had to make sure that they did not get affected. In some instances, added incentives had to be revoked, but we always communicated transparently.”

With on-again, off-again last-minute lockdown notifications from the government, bookstores in Pakistan have to deal with much more than they bargained for. Saleem admits to not fully predicting the impact of the black swan pre-pandemic. The success of his online sales is credited to analysing “data-driven technology to engage with our audience and focusing on the basics.”

There is no book reading culture

The basics?

In a country like Pakistan, where books are considered a frivolous expense, and where a book-reading culture seems to have eluded the general population, what does one mean by “the basics”? A 2019 Gallup poll tells us that 75 percent of Pakistanis spend approximately zero hours reading anything at all. Bookstores, then, are like cacti in the desert.

“People would rather buy sofas than books for their homes,” said Raza Rumi, founder of The Pak Tea House, an online blog named for the café in Lahore frequented by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sadat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. Now he runs a similar blog, Naya Daur. “Bookstores became anaemic right after the Zia dictatorship,” he added.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, the censorship begun by the Zia regime was rampant. English was pushed out of the school curriculum and bookstores had to purchase only the list of books sanctioned by the National Press Trust. By the 1990s, however, things were beginning to change. In my peculiar teens, I lived in Karachi. It was 1997, and my first memorable book was on how to talk to the dead.

A hole-in-the-wall bookstore on Karsaz Road gave me endless supplies of books on the dark arts, secretly of course. I can’t tell you its name, simply because it didn’t have a name. Its owner was its brand: with his black-rimmed glasses and his big nose. For me, he was the equivalent of Google.

Book after book landed in my hands when I returned every week. I loved the quaintness of his bookstore. He refused to stock Sidney Sheldon, but he had piles of books on tantric massage, gore, music, biographies and how to earn money. There were magazines too, like the now-discontinued Herald, which published long-form political pieces.

Today, things are different – though just as politically defined.

The first book that my teenage daughter checked out from her high school library, for example, was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. A fun day for her is to head with friends to Oxford Books at Islamabad’s Centaurus Mall. For her today, a bookstore is about being spoiled for choices from young adult fiction to manga, from politics to poetry. The real lure for her is in the looking, the browsing and the pleasure of flipping through a book. Of course, she then puts the book back on the shelf, heads home and orders it online.

Before Covid

Before the pandemic changed everything, some bookstores were already engaging customers on the phone, via WhatsApp and on social media. Once Pakistan went into lockdown, it was these bookstores that held the marketing edge.

Last Word Books moved from Lahore’s Gadafi Stadium to Gulberg to Defense. I’ve followed loyally because I followed their social media posts. Just like the nameless bookstore on Karsaz Road, the charm came from the owner. Aysha Raja is in the business of prescribing books that are always refreshingly advanced – she listens to her customer’s predicament, then suggests customised literary cures. She listens to trends – both local and global. Her business acumen is legendary.

Najam Sethi, a media mogul, and also her business competitor, gives Raja due credit. “She is the only person in Pakistan I’ve seen who has curated and run a bookstore like it ought to be,” he said.

Before Covid, Raja would read to a captivated audience of children every Saturday. She hosted discussions on climate change every quarter, with books placed in recyclable beige tote bags to encourage reuse. Her bookstore was a platform for first-time authors and indie music artistes alike.

Running a bookstore with a community-focus doesn’t just take business acumen. Raja says it’s literally common sense. “If you want a curious intellectual subculture, you obviously need to feed the curiosity of those who made art,” she said. “You must encourage basic human connection and that is what will sustain your culture and of course your business. It’s really an act of self-preservation.”

Everything has changed

With the spread of the novel coronavirus in Pakistan, and continuous lockdowns in the country, the most recent being in May, bookstores have suffered. Today, they resemble dressed mannequins without any clothes on – shelves and shelves of books without anyone to flip through them and give them a home.

Parking spots outside Readings Bookstore are eerily empty. Cars drive by without stopping. The sign on the door reads clearly: CLOSED. The path to even a remote recovery for bookstores looks long-drawn-out – an endless flipbook. Saleem said, “It will take Liberty Books until 2023 to recover its business losses.”

The pandemic has not just resulted in bookstores flipping their signs from “Open” to “Closed”, it has also turned some readers away from reading altogether. Wajeeha Mohsin is an Islamabad-based human resource professional who runs a bookstagram account named Coffee With Cake. She reviews books, meets members of an elite book club and calls on authors to read their newest works. She observed that the pandemic has paradoxically fed the reading bug, even as it kills the desire to pick up a book.

According to Mohsin, the pandemic has a mood, and if the external world becomes too chaotic, reading slows down and sometimes even grinds to a halt. It’s like writer’s block, but for readers. “Even the most escapist of books don’t work, let alone serious books,” she said. “It seems totally counterintuitive – because while you have the time to curl up with a book, the reality is that you sometimes stop reading when things get really difficult.”

Reading while ambulance sirens are going off within earshot may feel like the purpose of literature is being defied. “You can’t read until the funk is over,” said Mohsin. “In such a state, I cannot even pick up a thriller or listen to an audio book. The funk has to pass on its own.”

Is there a book one could self-prescribe for the funk?

Apparently there is.

“Books speak to fears,” said Mohsin. “Even though everything we could count on has come apart – our parents being around, friends and family being healthy, relationships being able to withstand challenges – yet we continue turning to literature to escape, focus, help with grief, heartache, violence, lost jobs and just understanding the human condition. Each one of us does that.”

The human condition in Pakistan essentially begins and ends with food. “Customers were looking for books with activities to do with loved ones and cooking books saw an uptick in sales,” said Saleem. Some read for solitude and others, for socialising.

The transition to digital

The pandemic has changed everything – but this is not necessarily bad news for all bookstores, just those who adopted the online model late.

For Last Word Books, going digital was more about physical and psychological safety. They were one of the few bookstores to have an Instagram page early on, along with a fully functional website with books ready to order and an interface that was easy to use. “We did not want to be overtly advertising that we operate from a specific location, because we worked on things that were considered provocative or controversial – women rights, children’s rights and minority rights somehow enrage people and the Internet provided that protective domain,” said Raja.

The Internet gave her bookshop a competitive edge over rivals, because she was on social media and the young women she employed brought a keen online operational knowledge to the business. “These young women deployed both skillsets for both online and offline realities,” said Raja. Her bookstore caters to all genders, ages and genres, but it is in this very diverse range where readers catch a glimpse of radical inclusion.

Najam Sethi, on the other hand, admits to having limited sales during the pandemic. Vanguard Books’ digital side has “not been a priority, but we are fixing it and we’re hired someone to change that.”

He’s late to the party. The reality of reading a review online and then buying it in a click or two allows effortlessness at a time when business could use a lack of friction, for the economy has slowed down considerably.

The Internet is dotted with bookstagrams – Instagram posts of book discussions and reviews. There are also BookTubers who read books immediately after they hit Kindle and launch an instant verdict – influencing others to buy or not buy. The go-to place for young desi readers is the Delhi Book Club and Bookay, an Indian and Pakistani Facebook community of book readers respectively. The move from online book content discussions to sales is negligible in Pakistan, but as young people mimic their global counterparts, this is the way things are likely to go.

Sethi was early in the game of bookselling even if his store’s online presence is just taking off. He established Vanguard Books in 1979, when the reading culture of books in English was actually being diminished. But now, with the middle class putting their children in English medium schools, there is not just more demand, but more purchasing power.

So, but for the pandemic, Pakistan should have been a growth market for bookstores. “Eventually, every book ends up in Pakistan,” said Sethi. “Sooner or later.” It is not just that the price of books on average is lower in Pakistan, but that they are 30%-40% lower than their actual value. “Pakistan qualifies for special terms in the international book buying industry.”

So, we know the way demand has changed, but do we know how? Sethi said. “The marketplace of ideas is significantly better now than it was in the old days.” Interestingly there are also new entrants in the book-buying market: women. “It’s an impressionistic view for now, but notably, more women are buying books in Pakistan and they are not just reading fiction, but also non-fiction.”

Yet another change has appeared on the Pakistani literary scene with the surge of the coronavirus. With the nation being locked down, a shadow epidemic is on the rise: domestic violence. Here, too, bookstores and books have emerged as unlikely safe spaces, as Pakistani women learn, slowly, the importance of women-only safe spaces, of hunkering down by relying on each other in times of chaos, and of building narratives away from war and violence.

Raja reveals that only one in five of her readers are men. Why is that? “Men like to think of themselves as intellectual readers but the numbers don’t reflect that,” she said. “Meanwhile women are looking for growth, for themselves, for their children and their friends. They have taken on the duty to educate.”

Something is shifting in how Pakistan reads – and that shift has been brought about by the pandemic. Now, more than ever, it has underlined that books are dangerous for the status quo, and yet, they are safe spaces into which one can retire while the world falls apart.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.