City Landmarks – Abbasi Kutub Khana

Abbasi Kutub Khana is the oldest bookshop in Karachi. It was founded in 1910 in Juna Market and is being run by Habib Hussain Abbasi, the maternal grandson of the founder of this bookstore. If paying homage to the oldest bookshop is not enough, meeting Habib sb is certainly rewarding enough to warrant a visit.

Negotiating Juna Market traffic is no mean feat on a working day. We step out of our car at Napier road and start walking towards leather market – one of many specialty areas within Juna market – where the bookshop is located. The streets might be encroached and crowded but they have that character which made oriental markets popular and much romanticized. The market area was one of the oldest and earliest settlement outside walled city of Karachi and you can sense that while walking its alleys. However there’s another way of looking at it also. Negligence and lack of planning in later years has made a mess of what was originally a very well organized market. Traffic and pollution have made shopping experience miserable and hours are wasted in covering small distances.

Everyone in leather market knows Abbasi Kutub Khana as I discover when we briefly struggle with directions. Karachi wallas are quite adept at giving directions. The worst however I have witnessed are in Lahore where two people standing next to each other would point in different direction when inquired. The streets leading to Abbasi Kutub Khana could be mistaken for any of the oldest oriental bazaars in the region. It has that texture. It has that authenticity. It has that air around it which distinguish it from touristy setups. However maddening traffic won’tn let us appreciate the scene for long and pushes us forward. Thankfully Abbasi Kutub Khana is situated in one of the smaller streets which is rather quaint. The shop is smaller than my expectation with very little space to maneuver inside. Buyers are expected to order from the counter where a helper stands ready to process queries.

I find Habib sb deep in conversation with a regular visitor. Habib sb has grey hair and wears spectacles. He speaks in a polite but firm tone. He sits in one corner of the bookshop and is surrounded by books from all sides. there are two stories above him, all packed with books. While he speaks, his helper offers me a tour of the shop. I follow him to the roof. The shop was known for a glittering list of customers which included Shams-ul-ulema Dr Umar Daudpota, Shams-ul-ulema Mirza Qaleech Baig, Pir Hisamudin Rashidi and lately people like Arif Hassan sb. Increasingly book collection has become religious but the bookstore unique selling point remains the same, Abbasi Kutub Khana is the last hope for serious readers if they struggle to find a rare title. I see a lot of translations in Sindhi, English and other languages. We reach the third floor where we can see out in the street through a door. The area gives a feel of any Mughal era Mohalla in Lahore or Delhi. We step down and join Habib sb again. He tells me a bit of history about the shop.

Habib sb’s maternal grand father established this bookstore in 1910. His father took over the shop upon his death and Habib sb did the same when his father passed away. He however completed his degree before taking the business full time and made sure that his children do the same. He is in his 60s now and lives in PECHS but has grown accustomed to the shop and business.

He takes a break in middle to answer a phone call which is an inquiry about an old edition. There is an old copy of Dawn lying on his desk in which senior journalist Zubaida Mustafa has done a feature on the bookstore.

Mr Abbasi has witnessed the city grow from his bookshop in Juna Market. While the world around him has changed drastically, he has remained true to the book-selling profession. His shop is a true heritage site.

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Categories: City Landmarks

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One Comment on “City Landmarks – Abbasi Kutub Khana”

  1. Akbar Ali Badri
    December 6, 2018 at 10:14 pm #

    Excellent article.

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