Reading in Lockdown: Kashmir’s Top Bookseller Talks Pandemic Business

Sheikh Aijaz at his book store. Photo by Abid Bhat

Sajad Bhat

WHEN a book carton was delivered to engage students and scholars in different quarantine centres of Kashmir during the initial phase of pandemic, it became a spur-of-the-moment community response towards the health crisis—creating a new order and routine in the lockdown-laden society.

The man behind the move was the fifth generation proprietor of the heritage Gulshan Books of Kashmir, Sheikh Aijaz.

His initiative was hailed by netizens, prompting some of them to come forward, to help those caught in real life crisis.

Ever since Aijaz took over the family business some 32 years ago, he did a lot of permutations and combinations to rebrand and refashion it.

In a candid chat with Kashmir Observer, Chairman and CEO of Gulshan Books talks about the book business in lockdown, the growing enquires, and his digitalisation plans.

You were one of the first persons to respond to the COVID crisis in Kashmir when it was still in its infancy. How did the idea of book donation come up?

Well, I saw this anxious group of Kashmiri students quarantined in Srinagar on TV. They were expressing anguish over the state of affairs. They had no means of engagement. It set me thinking: How would they spend their 14 days in trauma-filled quarantine centres?

So, the next day, we contacted DC Srinagar, and informed him about our plan to distribute books among these students. He appreciated our idea, and soon we delivered 1000 books to those students through administration.

The idea was to give general books on Kashmir, besides fiction and bestsellers. Among those students were scholars, so we wanted to give them a meaningful time and engagement. Everyone appreciated the initiative.

But was it somehow a readership engagement process by Gulshan Books that earlier came up with a Reading Room cum Coffee Shop facility at Nehru Park?

See, our motive is to keep the reading and book culture alive in Kashmir. The same aim motivated us to come up with the Reading Room, Coffee Shop and Bookshop facility at Nehru Park. Such community reading-recreation initiatives are quite popular in foreign countries.

So, the idea always was to benefit the society and help it grow. While any of us can earn money in life, it’s a small contribution for the societal growth which matters most at the end of the day.

But do you see any change in the reading pattern in the valley?

There’s a lot of change. People are exploring new readings and authors.

And to sustain this passion, we focus on the books—especially those mapping different aspects and history of Kashmir.

While our children normally read career texts and other competitive books, we encourage them to read general books. This way, I’m only following my forefathers’ footsteps. They always did business with the sense of service.

Speaking about your forefathers, how did they start and sustain the book trade for over 70 years now?

Before the events of 1947 redrew boundaries and made Kashmir valley dependent on the fair-weather Srinagar-Jammu Highway, a small bookshop near a bus stand in Pattan would cater to the reading needs of locals and passengers, then travelling on the Srinagar-Lahore Road.

But after the dynamics of our land changed, a smalltime bookseller named Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim, my great grandfather, relocated his shop to Srinagar’s Chattabal area. That shop would be mostly run by my grandfather, Sheikh Abdul Gaffar.

Later he shifted his shop to Maharaj Gunj, wherefrom the Sheikhs subsequently relocated it to Fateh Kadal and Gow Kadal.

While the shop at Gow Kadal still stands, the Gulshan Books brand reached Srinagar’s Residency Road, Nehru Park and Leh over the period of time.

The longevity of our trade was determined by my forefather’s ability to respond to the changing reading trends of the society, and exploring new markets.

They mainly focused on the promotion of Urdu language, which had, and still has, good readership in the valley.

But on my part, I worked on the international outreach by focusing on English language, Jammu and Kashmir and Sufism.

As top bookseller in town, who interacts with readers, do you believe that pandemic lockdown is improving readership in Kashmir today?

Obviously, the readership is growing, but sadly, due to the lockdown, it isn’t benefiting the book business.

Due to the recurrent lockdowns in Kashmir, our trade is running in huge losses. There’s a clear indifference towards the trade. Even in the recent stimulus package announced by New Delhi, there’s nothing for book business. We may be forced to shift to other line, if we continue to face this situation.

But then, people would still ask, what’s stopping the valley’s heritage bookshop to digitalise itself and cater to the evolving online market?

Let me tell you, it’s a work in progress.

Idea is to digitalise some rare and historic books by our unsung Kashmiri authors. People can buy Classics from Amazon, but they can’t get some rare books written by our Kashmiri authors there.

We’re working on this thing for last one year. Once done, our books will be available for readers in the PDF form. We want to maintain a complete database on books.

But, for everything in life, you need some certainty. Let’s not forget that we live in the place where internet often becomes the situational casualty.

Coming back to Pandemic readings, how are you catering orders these days?

We may not be able to sell books during the current lockdown, but we are receiving overwhelming queries on phone.

The callers are mainly enquiring about the general books, but there’s definitely a surge in the demand of the local writers. Much of this has to do with the current indoor routine.

Although these calls are nothing new for us, but in pandemic they’ve increased, which actually tells you that there’s a growing reading appetite in the society these days.

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Sajad Bhat

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