The situation of COVID-19 is getting worse in Bangladesh and is reflected in the increase in the number of victims: the country is ranked 18th among the most affected in the world in terms of number of cases of coronavirus.
The economic upheaval caused by the pandemic is also developing very rapidly. One of the first signs of the economic “tsunami” is the closure of many stores in the capital Dhaka, even after the restrictions were relaxed in June 2020.
Bookshops are also among businesses struggling to survive the economic toll.
Many bookstores in Dhaka closed when the COVID-19 trust was imposed during March 2020. The closure of educational institutions until August 6 means that book buyers, mostly students and professionals, will not be back soon to help reverse the decline in booksellers' incomes.
More than 21 million people live in Dhaka, where there are already few bookstores that can serve this market, but the pandemic has forced most of them to stop operating.
Nilkhet is the center of the second-hand book trade in Dhaka. In addition to a selection of books, fiction and non-fiction or reference books from Bangladesh and abroad, among the old books in Nilkhet you can find old, rare or out of print books. The Mostafa Baighar bookstore, one of the largest second-hand bookshops in Dhaka, started its activity in this market 30 years ago. The pandemic came and the store closed.
Hallways like open bookcases.
The end of an era of acquiring old books
In Nilkhet there are many more bookstores, with new and old books. Author Shoaib Sarwanam explains on Facebook why Mostafa Baighbar 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 a rare or out of catalog book or any important book published in Bengali was needed. Mostafa is a man of miraculous powers. Every time a buyer mentioned the name of a book, they closed their eyes and recognized the name of the author of the book, the name of the edition and its price. And most importantly, you could get the book anywhere!
Mostafa, the owner of the bookstore, has a deep understanding of books published in Bengali. Ehsan Islam highlighted it in a 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 taste and requests of the buyers; But not everyone can suggest a similar or complementary book that can help the buyer. I have seen many days that Mostafa leans forward while sitting and reading books, he did not just turn the pages: he was a voracious reader. I could tell you the whole story, not just the most important parts. Not only did he memorize the sales pitches, readers realize it.
Researcher and playwright Nazrul Syed wrote on Facebook of the possible impact of the closure of old bookstores on the preservation of 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 huge bookshelves or a spacious room full of neglected and insect infested books that take up a lot of space. The youngest members of the family do not read them or touch them. They are waiting for the old generation to die to get rid of this garbage.
Few booksellers like Mostafa bought a lot of these books. Perhaps not alone, some would gather and buy treasures. Then they would inform people like us, that we always look for old and rare books. They perfectly know who is interested in buying what book in this city! I myself have bought him many rare books.
As many sellers like Mostafa are closing and changing their profession, this will no longer happen. These books will go to the old paper recyclers. There are so many second-hand books that they probably have no more copies in the world. No one in the present generation knows about this … many valuable documents of Bengali literary culture will be lost as well.
A view of the Dipanpur bookstore I recently visited…
Creative bookstores on the decline day after day in Bangladesh
In Dhaka, creative bookstores (independent bookstores specializing in fiction and nonfiction books, and which include services like reading areas and coffee shops) have become popular in the past decade and generated interest among book lovers. However, several major independent city bookstores like Nalanda, Madhyama, Pencil and Dipanpur are closing due to the financial crisis amid the coronavirus outbreak. Especially the closure of Dipanpur has been the one that has disappointed many since it was not a simple bookstore, it was also a cafeteria and a center for creative people. Indeed, many literary activities were organized here; It was opened in memory of publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, brutally murdered by Islamic militants in Dhaka in 2015. Some friends of the bookstore are trying to start a campaign to get her back.
However, author Munmun Sharmin Shams thinks the reason behind the closure of independent bookstores is the decrease in demand. According to her, books are the least important thing in the lives of Bangladeshis and many of the readers do not know about the fight that bookstores have undertaken for their survival.
Digital editions are not yet popular in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, the publication of digital books has not yet taken off for various reasons, such as the high cost of e-books and the lack of demand. Rifat Munim wrote on the Indian website Scroll.in about it:
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.
Although many publishers, such as University Press Limited, are increasingly considering the potential for publishing e-books, digital publishing has not yet gained in prominence in Bangladesh, mainly because of the cultural orientation and also the high prices of the devices.
Rifat Munim noted that the book publishing rate has 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.
In 2010, just over 3,000 books were published, and the number now reaches 6,500. Members of the Bangladesh Association of Academic and Creative Publishers estimate that over 75% of books have been published during the Ekushey Book Fair (or Fair of the Books of the Immortals), the largest book activity in the country. Today, about two million people depend directly on the publishing industry for their livelihood, and almost 10 times as many people indirectly participate in the industry.
According to reports, 4,919 new books have been published at the Ekushey Book Fair in 2020 and books worth 720 million taka (about $ 8.47 million) have been sold. There is no information on how many books are sold the rest of the year.
Over the past few years, the country has seen several platforms that sell physical copies of books. The country's largest online bookstore, Rokomari, sells nearly a million books (physical copies) a year.
The question to ask is, will this compensate for the loss caused by the sudden closure of popular bookstores like Mostafa Baighar and Dipanpur?