Islamabad: Founded by Taj Muhammad Qureshi in 1932 in Peshawar, Saeed Book Bank — with more than 200,000 titles on display in its three-storeyed building — is today Pakistan’s largest book-selling network.
In 1999, when English magazines and books were banned by the Taliban in the former North West Frontier Province (NWFP) — and today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — Taj Qureshi’s son Saeed Qureshi shifted the business to Islamabad.
This treasure trove of books, however, is on the verge of closure due to heavy taxes and decline in book sale. Speaking to Gulf News, Ahmed Saeed, proprietor of the bookstore, said due to the prevailing economic meltdown in the country, his business was badly suffering and he was thinking to rent out three floors of his building and shift the stocks to the upper two floors.
Indian factor, piracy element and taxes
Saeed said since his bookshop mainly deals in imported books, international publishers tell them to contact India as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other countries of the region all fall in ‘India territory’ with regard to business of international books.
“This ‘India’ factor is affecting our business a lot as we don’t have frequent trade links with India,” said Saeed. “As a result, we have to import books at higher prices.”
Another factor that contributed to poor business of books in Pakistan is there is no check on piracy, Saeed said. Whichever title one imports at a higher price, is available in the pirated edition in the open market and the government is simply a silent spectator, he rued.
Last but not the least, heavy taxes on import of books (20 per cent) are also making it a hard job to continue this business, Saeed added.
The Nawaz Sharif government first charged an extra 4 per cent withholding tax that was later raised to 6 per cent, he said. Besides, there are other taxes on the sale of books and import charges, he said. In total, the tax element comes to around 35-36 per cent that sellers have to pay on books, he said.
“Worldwide, book business is either tax free or exempted to a large extent. But unfortunately, in Pakistan, it is treated like some other business,” he said. “If ours was a rented building, we would have quit long ago,” he said.
Saeed said out of an average of 300 customers who visit the bookshop every day, around 100 seek paperback or ‘photocopy editions’ and about 100 only visit without purchasing, while the remaining 100 are buyers.
Writers, students concerned over possible closure of Saeed Books
Islamabad’s writers, intellectuals and general public expressed their concern over the news that Saeed Book Bank was facing problems in running its business. Iftikhar Arif, an acclaimed poet of Pakistan and director general of National Language Promotion Department (NLPD), said Saeed Book Bank was like an island of peace where one finds oneself in the company of best books and spends quality time. If it is forced to reduce its business or close it down it will be a great pity, he said.
Muhammad Hameed Shahid, a fiction writer, also termed Saeed Book Bank a blessing for the literati of the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Name a book and you will find it there. They provide you even those titles that are not available with them on order, he said.
Nazia Akhtar, a student and an avid reader, expressed her concern over the hardships faced by Saeed Book Bank. “It will indeed be a great misfortune if it closes down or narrows down its business as it is the only bookstore that is always bustling with new arrivals, rare editions as well as classics,” she said.