I honestly have no idea how old I was when I walked into my first bookstore, simply because I was far too young at the time. I do remember reading my first book at the age of 6; a Peter and Jane book. I remember buying that particular book quite vividly. You don't forget your first time that easily after all. At that time, in the 90's, people in Pakistan did not read English books as much as they do now. Would you believe, dear reader, that my nation discovered Tolkien when the movie came out? Oh the horror! It's so terribly tragic is it not?
Be that as it may, when I was growing up, there were three bookstores I frequented, Universal Bookstore, Say Publishing, and Model Books. Sadly enough, all three have been eased out of the competition now. Universal sells a small range of children's Ladybird books and a few Enid Blyton books, Say Publishing is... well I have no idea, no one visits that store anymore. As for poor Model Books, my favorite haunt, the owner is far too old to manage it now, and it’s mainly a place to get course books, i.e. if it hasn't shut down by now.
Universal had aisles, neat orderly aisles of Enid Blyton and Francine Pascal. Say Publishing had messier but no less orderly aisles. And Model Books...My God. Words fail me. It was, to my tiny little mind, Heaven. Books piled haphazardly in shelves, on the floor, giant piles rising up where my mother could easily misplace me if she didn't keep an eye on me (I've always been rather on the short side.) Fear Street, Spooksville, Sweet Valley Twins, Encyclopedia Brown, The Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Chicken Soup For The Kid's Soul, that place had everything a child thirsty for books in what I refer to as medieval Pakistan wanted, and more.
Then, as time went by, a new bookstore popped up. It was, at the time, something more for the elite classes you might say, simply because it had such expensive books. Why so expensive, you might ask? Because it had more than the usual books sold in Pakistan. It had *gasp* books from abroad! Can you believe it? Books that have currently been published? But how is that possible, I wondered. I mean, we don't get American or foreign books here, aside from the old ones normally sold here. And who on earth is this John Grisham character everyone is talking about? And so, at a formal dinner event at PC hotel, I coaxed my dear father to take me to that magical outlet at the hotel. My parents are not without their flaws, but in a time when girls were grateful to be able to at least graduate high school before getting married off, let alone study at all, my wonderful parents not only encouraged me to read and write, they spent, or rather by the perception of those times, wasted a large amount of books getting me all the books I wanted. Liberty Books, how I love thee. After my monthly, midterm and final exams, I would get a royal treat; not one, not two, but sometimes even three, THREE books from Liberty Books! Three whole books! And if I got good grades, I could even get five! Five books from the fancy, swanky liberty Books! I was the luckiest girl in the whole world!
Somewhere in 2000, or perhaps the late 90s, at Boat Basin which is a clustered line of tiny shops, I wandered into something called Mr. Old Books. Why was it called Old Books? Because you could buy books from there, and if you didn't like it, or didn't fancy keeping it, you could actually sell it back and exchange it for another book. Wow, really?! I mean, sure, in Spooksville, book 20, The Dangerous Quest, I had read that Watch did that, but I thought that was just something Christopher Pike made up! If Model Books had been heaven, Mr. Old Books was utopia. There, my parents did lose me, but not physically, I was tall enough by then. No, my dad would actually have to shake me, and I would look at him with a dazed, blank expression in my eyes as he would shake his head in amusement and take the pile of books threatening to topple either itself or me over from my arms. For Rs. 2000, I could get five books from Liberty. For the same amount, I could get about 15 books from Mr. Old Books. Some of the best books I have are from that wonderful place. I have a small cupboard for books in my room and a three shelved case. One of the shelves contains the notebooks I scribble in, another has miscellaneous odds and ends, and the third, the middle shelf, my favorite place, is filled, or rather stuffed with reference books, most of them from Old Books. From the encyclopedia of mythology to the history of war, the history of the Saracens and Pakistan to the books on Native American and Egyptian mythology, that shelf represents exactly how much Mr. Old Books means to me.
Sadly enough, times they are a changing. Books are now simply so expensive that people would rather rent the Rs. 60 DVD of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter than spend Rs. 400 on the actual book. I can afford to spend about 7 grand on books, my parents value knowledge and education enough to not bat an eyelash when I buy one book for Rs. 1500, but let’s face it, we are a third world country. We're not as bad off as it seems, but we aren't that well off either. The problem is simply this; people would rather learn cool English from American TV then to explore their imaginations through books. Can you really blame storekeepers for raising their prices? Just the other day, I mentioned it front of a group of people that I wanted a castle made of chocolate like Prince Pondicherry.
Blank stares all around.
In another incident, in my Advanced Photography class, I explained a picture as a pastoral landscape and explaining my inspiration as Hardy, quoted, "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife". The group of 14 I was addressing had no idea what I was talking about. I know Hardy is depressing, but come on. Talk about being a buffoon!
No,books are no longer a scarce commodity here, not by a long shot. Unfortunately, they've become a rare hobby. Liberty has stupid morons looking for Twilight, and Mr. Old Books has a loyal underground type following, a lot of geeks like me that like spending hours and hours in a tiny, dusty bookshop. I find it increasingly baffling that our nation has advanced so much in the past few years and yet, te average person will always think you mean Jingle Bells or Deck The Halls if you ask them if they've read A Christmas Carol.
"A room without books is like a body without a soul."