After his father died, Ahmad Saeed took over the office on the ground floor of the family’s storied bookstore here, Saeed Book Bank. Then the elderly men started visiting, seeking to settle old debts.
“They all apologized and said they had tried to see my father while he was alive but his office was always too crowded and they were embarrassed,” Saeed said.
Five times such men arrived, hat in hand, not just to pay their respects to the son and family, but also to say they wanted to pay for books they had shoplifted as children. Saeed said his father, Saeed Jan Qureshi, who died of heart failure in September, would have been amused: He had always regarded book theft by children as an investment in a future where people still read, and thus become his customers.
That approach helped Qureshi make an extraordinary future for Saeed Book Bank, particularly in an era when online sales have been driving independent bookstores out of business, and in a region where unfettered book piracy adds to retailers’ travails.
With his passion for books, Qureshi built one of the biggest bookstores in the world — mostly selling books in English, in a country where that is a second language for most people.
Saeed Book Bank has 42,000 square feet of usually busy floor space over three stories, displays 200,000 titles, and stocks more than four million books in its five warehouses — all, Ahmad Saeed said, “by the grace of the almighty.”
(His visitor had not read “Fallen Leaves,” so Saeed sent one of his 92 employees to fetch a copy. “It is so good, you must read this book.” Another visitor to the office, an aged doctor named S H Naqvi, agreed, having himself read it at their insistence: “It will touch your heart,” he said.)
Saeed Jan Qureshi came from a family that worked for a feudal landlord named Mir Banda Ali. His estates in southern Sindh Province were so vast that five railway stops reputedly lay within his property lines. His library was similarly scaled, and as a 9-year-old, Saeed was put to work dusting the shelves. One day Ali found him reading instead of working, and told the boy to get back to work immediately — but added that he could take a book home every night, so long as he returned it in mint condition.
Saeed never got past high school but he was exceedingly well-read, and after school he found a job as a book salesman for a company that sent him to its Peshawar branch. Later, in the 1950s, he opened his own bookshop in Peshawar.
During the Cold War years that followed, Pakistan was an outpost in the American rivalry with the Soviet Union, and Peshawar became an important military base, and later a vital CIA. base of operations, particularly during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Say what you will about the spooks, they were readers, and Qureshi built his business around catering to their literary tastes.
(Speaking of Afghanistan, Saeed said: “Have you read “The Spinner’s Tale,” by Omar Shahid Hamid? No?” He seemed mildly shocked. Moments later a Pan Macmillan paperback copy of the novel materialized. “I am sorry, we’ve sold out of ‘Fallen Leaves’ — it’s so hard to keep in stock — but read this,” Ahmad said. “A lot of it is set in Afghanistan.”)
Later the rise of terrorism and fundamentalist Islam made Peshawar, capital of the wild frontier lands of Pakistan, a dangerous place for a bookseller — especially one who insisted on carrying magazines like Cosmopolitan and Heavy Metal, books by Karen Armstrong on Islam, and even the scientist Richard Dawkins’s atheist treatise, “The God Delusion.” (“You just wouldn’t believe how that sells,” Saeed said. “We buy a thousand copies from Random House every year, year after year.”)
On the other hand, he said, another best-seller is “The Message of the Qur’an,” an English translation of the holy book by Muhammad Asad, a European Jewish scholar and diplomat who converted to Islam.
Forced to close shop in Peshawar, Qureshi focused his efforts in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, a place heavily insulated from the country’s more extremist elements. Hard times followed as even Islamabad became a “no families” posting for diplomats and aid workers, but by then the bookstore was so big that its sheer breadth kept it viable, as plenty of Pakistanis read books in English.
“Other Pakistani booksellers laughed at us that we never carried pirated books,” Saeed said. “But only best-sellers get pirated, and we carry everything.”
The result is a bookstore of impressive scope, quirky and catholic. “Islamic Fashion,” a glossy coffee table book and a best-seller, vies for shelf space with “Queer Studies.”
A thick condolence book for Qureshi, the third so far, sits on a counter, which sags under the weight of a couple hundred miniature books as well. A few rows away, an entire shelf is given over to Noam Chomsky, 26 titles in all, which may well be more than any bookstore in the world displays for the radical linguist and philosopher.
“Honestly, Chomsky sells here,” Saeed said.
As the eldest son, Saeed was always destined to take over the business when his father passed away, and to learn the trade he traveled with his father to international book fairs; annually to Frankfurt, thrice yearly to London, twice yearly to Delhi.
But not to the United States, the Saeed Book Bank’s biggest source of books.
“We spend $500,000 annually in America, and I can’t get a visa,” Saeed said. “The consular officer said, ‘Why can’t you just order by email and fax?’ They just don’t understand about books. You have to go to the warehouses, and see them and feel them — that’s how you buy books.”
(“Fallen Leaves” again: “When my father was sick, he said, ‘Read this book, and you will calm down,’” Saeed said. “He was right.” Dr Naqvi could quote lines from it. “What if it is for life’s sake that we must die?” Otherwise, “youth would find no room on the earth.”)
Qureshi made sure his children had the education he did not. Ahmad has a master’s degree in business administration, with ambitious plans to computerize the store’s inventory and build up what is now a clunky and unsophisticated online business. Nonetheless, it sells $1,000 worth of books a day online in a place where credit cards are still a novelty.
For his father, books were more than just a business, Saeed said. One of the penitent former book thieves who dropped in was Suleman Khan, the vice chancellor of Iqra University, in Islamabad.
“He came to say that when he was a child, 6 years old or so, he stole an Archie comic book and my father saw him,” Mr Saeed said. “He said he was afraid he was going to get slapped, but my father said, ‘This is good that you like books. So every day you can take a book but keep it in mint condition and return it when you’re done so I can still sell it.’”
And then the vice chancellor said, “Everything that I am now, I owe to your father.”
(Dr Naqvi, who is getting on in years, had seemed to doze off for a moment but awoke when he heard that story. “‘Fallen Leaves,’” he sighed. “You have to read that book. Everything is in there.”)