On a regular day, you can find the bespectacled and grey-haired Habib Hussain Abbasi sitting on the counter surrounded by books, often in conversation with a visitor. Image Credit: Supplied

Islamabad: The lone old-fashioned bookstore in one of the small streets of the crowded, oriental Juna Market of Karachi is a hidden treasure and a heritage site that few people know about.

Abbasi Kutub Khana is believed to be the oldest continuously-running bookstore in Pakistan, founded in 1910. This bookstore is truly a “dream built of wood and paper” for book lovers. The long shelves crammed with books and the old architecture take the visitors on time travel.

Habib Hussain Abbasi, the bookseller and the manager, believes he is not selling a book or piece of paper but knowledge and a whole new life. The 72-year-old says he is building a lasting legacy worth passing on. The fine collection of books is the labour of love of three generations of the Abbasi family.

Habib Abbasi’s maternal grandfather owned this shop some 112 years ago. His father Abdul Rasool took charge in 1941 upon his grandfather’s demise, and Abbasi assumed responsibility when his father passed away in 1988.

Service to humanity

Abbasi is no ordinary bookseller but a “gentleman who deals in books.” He has 28 years of training with his father. “I have been coming to the shop, leafing through books since 1960 when I was in grade four and learnt the craft of bookselling from my father” he recalled. During this time, he continued his studies and graduated from the Sindh Muslim College in Karachi.

The shop is tiny, but contains encyclopedias and rare books on literature, history and philosophy in Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Sindhi and English. Image Credit: Supplied

Since his school days, he has not missed a single day at the bookshop. “Most of my life has been spent here in this bookstore,” he shared. “Reading books and interacting with book readers, deep conversations and exchange of new ideas with visitors. This is the most valuable asset of my life.” For him, bookselling is not a business or a commercial activity but “a way of nourishing minds and promoting knowledge”. He describes his work as Khidmat-e-Khalq (service to humanity).

Famous visitors

Abbasi Kutub Khana has been a centre of attention for scholars, poets, and publishers for decades. Abbasi recalls the great names from the literary world who visited the bookstore such as Vice Chancellor of Damascus university Allama Abdul Aziz Memon, Sindh’s Shamsul Ulema Dr Daudpota, and famous poets including Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Rais Ahmed Jafri, Ehsaan Danish. Several foreign scholars including those from Georgetown University have also been visitors to the bookstore.

The shop has little space to move around inside but is crowded with a wealth of knowledge from encyclopedias of all varieties to rare books on literature, history and philosophy in Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Sindhi and English languages.

“Many people come here looking for books they can’t find elsewhere. Their words of gratitude and delight upon finding the books, it is just indescribable” says Abbasi who grew up in the company of books and scholars. He considers books his most loyal friends.

Habib Abbasi’s maternal grandfather owned the shop some 112 years ago. His father Abdul Rasool took charge in 1941 and Abbasi assumed responsibility after his demise in 1988. Image Credit: Supplied

Efforts to promote reading

On a regular day, the bespectacled and grey-haired bookstore owner is found sitting on the counter surrounded by books and often in conversation with a visitor. There are two more stories all packed with books. Despite the difficult-to-access location of the shop, the bookseller has no plans to move the bookstore saying the “knowledge seeker will come to the store” anyway.

Despite the decline of reading in Pakistan and the slowly growing culture of online reading, Abbasi aims to continue his efforts solitarily to spread the light of knowledge to civilise communities and inspire young readers. However, he suggested that libraries, publishers, and big literary institutions should work in collaboration to promote reading.

Bookstore standing strong

During the last two decades, Pakistan has lost some of its oldest bookstores including the permanent closure in 2017 of the iconic Ferozsons in Lahore which had remained the centre of history and literature activities since 1894.

However, Karachi’s Abbasi Kutub Khana has defied all odds. The century-old bookstore has miraculously survived two catastrophes during the last hundred years. One time, the store’s roof fell off during heavy rains in Karachi but there was no major damage and the store was soon repaired. Another time, a massive fire broke out in the chemical godown near the bookstore. “Thank God, the fire did not spread much, otherwise I would have lost it all.”

Abbasi Kutub Khana which has witnessed the transformations of Karachi city over a century continues to survive the transitions, standing strong and guaranteeing access to knowledge for Pakistanis.