Nilkhet second-hand book market. You can find old, rare, or out of print books here. Image from Flickr by Francisco Anzola. CC BY 2.0.

How COVID-19 led to the closure of popular bookshops in Bangladesh · Global Voices

The pandemic and the lockdown hit the booksellers hard

Nilkhet second-hand book market in Dhaka. You can find old, rare, or out of print books here. Image from Flickr by Francisco Anzola. (CC BY 2.0).

The COVID-19 situation is worsening in Bangladesh as reflected in the rising death toll. It is now the 18th worst affected country in the world in terms of the number of coronavirus cases.

The economic disruption caused by the pandemic is also rapidly unfolding. One of the first signs of the economic ‘Tsunami’ is the closure of many shops in the capital Dhaka even after the easing of restrictions in June 2020.

Book stores are among those that are struggling to survive the economic fallout.

Most bookstores in Dhaka were closed when the COVID-19 lockdown was enforced in March 2020. The closure of educational institutions until August 6 means that the book buyers, who are mostly students and professionals, will not return soon to help reverse the falling revenues of booksellers.

Over 21 million people live in Dhaka. There is already a shortage of bookshops that can cater to this market but the pandemic has forced many of the stores to stop operating.

Nilkhet is the center of the second-hand book trade in Dhaka. Apart from used curriculum books, fiction, non-fiction or reference books from Bangladesh and abroad, you can even find old, rare, or out of print books in the Nilkhet old book market. Mostafa Baighar (bookstore), one of the biggest second-hand book shops in Dhaka, started its business in this market thirty years ago. The pandemic came and closed the shop.

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sidewalks as open book shop…#nilkhet

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The end of an era of sourcing old books

There are many more old and new bookstores in Nilkhet. Author Shoaib Sarwanam explains on Facebook why Mostafa Baighar is unique:

বাংলা ভাষায় প্রকাশিত যে কোন রেয়ার বই, প্রিন্ট আউট বই, হারায়ে যাওয়া গুরুত্বপূর্ণ বইটা দরকার হইলে একমাত্র ভরসা ছিল মোস্তফা।
মোস্তফা হয় একজন অলৌকিক ক্ষমতাসম্পন্ন লোক। যে কোন বইয়ের নাম বললেই সে চোখ বন্ধ করে সেই বইটার লেখকের নাম, প্রকাশনীর নাম, গায়ের দাম গড়গড় করে বলে দিতে পারে। তার চেয়ে বড় কথা, যেইখান থেকেই হোক বইটা ঠিকই জোগাড় করে এনে দিতে পারে!

Mostafa was the only hope if one needed any rare book, 0ut-of-print book, or any important book published in the Bengali language. Mostafa is a man of miraculous powers. Whenever a buyer mentioned the name of a book, he would close his eyes and recognize the name of the author of the book, the name of the publication, and the price of the book. And what is most important, he could source the book from anywhere!

Mostafa, the owner of the bookstore, has deep knowledge of published Bengali books. Ehsan Islam highlighted this in his Facebook post:

বই অনেকেই বিক্রি করে নীলক্ষেতে, পাঠক অনুযায়ি আগ্রহ জাগানিয়া বইও তুলে দিতে পারেন নাকের সামনে, কিন্তু বইয়ের প্রসঙ্গ ধরে আরেকটা বইয়ের খবর সবাই দিতে পারে না। আমি অজস্র দিন দেখেছি, মোস্তফা ভাই ঝুঁকে পড়ে বই পড়ছেন। নিতান্ত ফ্ল্যাপ নয়, ভেতরের পাতা উল্টে উল্টে পড়ছেন। গল্পের চমকলাগা খটকা নয়, প্রবাহটুকুও বলতে পারেন। পরের মুখে ঝাল খাওয়ার মতো শুনে শুনে আত্মস্থ করে তা বলা যায় না, বোঝা যায়।

There are many sellers in Nilkhet who can suggest interesting books according to the individual buyer’s taste and requirement. But not everyone can suggest a similar or a supplementary book that could help the buyer. I have seen countless days, Mostafa is leaning forward while sitting and reading books. Not just flipping through the flaps, he was a voracious reader. He could tell the flow of the story, not just the highlights. Not just memorized sales pitches, readers can tell.

Researcher and playwright Nazrul Syed wrote on Facebook about the possible impact of the closure of old bookstores on preserving Bengali literary culture:

পরিবারে বিশাল বিশাল কয়েকটা তাক ভর্তি পুরনো পোকায় কাটা বই অধিকাংশ পরিবারের জন্যই অভিশাপের। অনেকটুকু জায়গা খেয়ে ফেলছে! হয়তো আস্ত একটা ঘরই দখল করে আছে! এগুলো কেউ পড়ে না, ছুঁয়েও দেখে না। পরিবারের বৃদ্ধ মানুষটি ঘোলা চোখে মাঝে মধ্যে তাকান, ধুলো ঝাড়েন, গন্ধ নেন। পরিবারের তরুণ সদস্যরা অপেক্ষা করে থাকে বুড়োর একটা গতি হলে এই জঞ্জাল ঝেঁটিয়ে বাড়ি থেকে বিদায় করার।

এই বইগুলো তখন কিনে নেন মোস্তফা মামারা। হয়তো একা পারেন না, কয়েকজন মিলে কিনে নেন। লট ধরে কিনে নেন। তারপর ফোন যায় আমাদের কাছে, যারা পুরনো বইয়ের পুরনো ক্রেতা। তাঁরা ঠিক চেনেন এই শহরে কে কে এই বইগুলো কিনতে পারে। আমি নিজে অসংখ্য দুষ্প্রাপ্য বই কিনেছি এই সুবাদে।

মোস্তফা মামাদের পেশা বদলের ফলে এই ব্যাপারটি ঘটার আর সুযোগ থাকবে না। বইগুলো তখন চলে যাবে ভাঙ্গারির দোকানে। এমন অসংখ্য বই, যেগুলোর সারা পৃথিবীতেই হয়তো আর কোনো কপি নেই, কেউ জানেও না তার খবর… হারিয়ে যাবে বাংলা সাহিত্য সংস্কৃতির অমূল্য সব দলিল…

In many families, you will find a few huge shelves or a large room filled with neglected, insect-infested books taking a lot of space! The younger members of the family do not read or touch them. They are waiting for the last days of the old generation so they can clear this rubbish after their death.

Only a few booksellers like Mostafa bought these books a lot. Maybe not alone, a few of them together would buy each treasure trove. Then they would inform people like us, who are always looking for old and rare books. They know exactly who is interested to buy what books in this city! I myself have bought many rare books from him.

As sellers like Mostafa are closing shop and changing profession, this will no longer happen. These books will then go to old-paper recyclers. There are so many second-hand books with probably no more copies in the world. No one in the present generation knows about it… many valuable documents of Bengali literary culture will be lost like this.

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দীপনপুর গিয়েছিলাম ঘুরে দেখার জন্য। ?

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A view of the Dipanpur bookstore I visited recently…

Creative bookstores are declining day by day in Bangladesh

In Dhaka, creative bookstores (independent bookstores specializing in fiction and non-fiction and including amenities like reading area and cafes) have become popular in the past decade generating interest among book lovers. However, a number of prominent independent bookshops in the city such as Nalanda, Madhyama, Pencil, and Dipanpur are closing down due to financial crisis amid the coronavirus outbreak. The closure of Dipanpur has especially disappointed many since it was not just a bookstore but also functioned as a cafe and a hub for creative people. In fact, various literary events were organized there. It was opened in memory of publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, who was killed brutally by Islamic militants in 2015 in Dhaka. Friends of Dipanpur are trying to initiate a campaign to revive it.

However, author Munmun Sharmin Shams thinks that the reason behind the closure of the creative bookstores is the declining demand. According to her, books are the least important thing in the lives of Bangladeshis now and many readers don’t know about the books shops that are still struggling to survive.

A book stall in old Dhaka which sells mainly text books. Image via Flickr by David Brewer. ( CC BY-SA 2.0).

Digital editions are not yet popular in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, publishing of digital books has not yet picked up due to a lot of reasons such as the high price of e-book readers and lack of demand. Rifat Munim wrote at Indian online publication about this issue:

Although many publishers, such as the University Press Limited, are increasingly considering the potential of releasing ebooks, digital editions are yet to gain wider currency in Bangladesh, mainly owing to cultural orientation, and also because of the high prices of devices.

Rifat Munim noted that the rate of book publication increased in recent years:

In 2010, a little more than 3,000 books were published yearly, and the number now exceeds 6,500. Members of the Academic and Creative Publishers Association of Bangladesh reckon that more than 75% of books are launched during the Ekushey Book Fair, the country’s biggest book event. Currently, some 2,00,000 people depend directly on the publishing industry for their livelihoods, with nearly 10 times as many people involved indirectly with the industry.

As per reports 4,919 new books have been published at the Ekushey Book Fair in 2020 and books worth Bangladeshi Taka (BDT) 720 million (US$ 8.47 million) have been sold there. There is no information on how many books are sold in the rest of the year.

In the past few years, the country has seen a few online platforms that sell hard copies of books. The country’s largest online bookstore, Rokmari, sells about 1 million books (hard copies) a year.

But will this offset the loss caused by the sudden closure of popular book shops such as Mostafa Baighar and Dipanpur?