From the reader’s haven

  • 24 Aug - 30 Aug, 2019
  • Eman Saleem
  • Interview

Earlier this month, Karachi hosted a 24 hour book sale; I visited during the lunch hours and find the place buzzing with chatter. Customers were going about flipping through books and sharing a brief fancy with them, deciding to bag it or not. As I surveyed the many stalls, the children’s collection was the largest, and the richest in terms of creativity and variety, with all kinds of titles and activities to engage them. I sit down for a brief conversation with Awais Akhtar Butt, Director of Big Bad Wolf Book Sale, a reading advocacy company and how it intends to make reading for affordable and accessible to all. Excerpts follow:

Tell me about what you do?

My background lies in a crowd-funding business and I have been involved with banking and finance my whole life. But I have been associated with BBW for two years when I was visiting one of the book sales. I was struck at first sight with the enormous amount of books and the area covering hundred thousand square feet. I saw people buying books like they were shopping in grocery stores, piled to the brim. What struck me what that it was a country where English is not spoken with as much fluidity, yet, there was a steady flow of customers. I approached the founders, Andrew and Jacqueline Yap, and collaborated with them. Last year, we held the book fair in Dubai, and then worked our way into Pakistan. Andrew already had plans to expand to Pakistan since it’s such a big market. Hence, we came to Lahore in April this year.

How did the sale fare in Dubai?

Dubai is a cosmopolitan city with tentatively 190 nationalities; the response was overwhelming. Despite the happening city that it is, I cannot recall any book sale of this size in Dubai. BBW was the first and open for 24 hours for 12 consecutive days with a stock count of two million books, we drew a massive number of people, publications like New York Times picked us up and moreover, we got patronage from the Ministry of Education of the UAE.

Did you get any support from the government here?

This is a joint venture with Malaysian investors, we have flown in people and recruited a huge staff on ground. The idea is over and above reading advocacy, which is also the company’s mission, and meantime, we are also promoting the softer image of Pakistan. I wouldn’t say we have received any patronage or support from the government but yes, they’ve taken notice of us.

If you come again, what would you do differently?

We took constant feedback from our customers and here’s what we summarised. We need to enhance our section for the Urdu books. We rely very heavily on publishers here for Urdu and regional languages, hence we plan on collaborating with local publishers and covering multiple genres the next time. We want to collaborate with local authors, organise book signings and reading clubs; some things we are looking into.

The most interesting aspect of the sale was that it was operational round the clock. Did you have people coming in during the late hours?

The theme of 24 hours was made around massive footfall when we had a closing time. People need time to browse through and we eliminate all inconveniences.

Do you plan on expanding in cities other than Lahore and Karachi?

Definitely. Although the population in Peshawar, Quetta and more is much less and reading audience even lesser but we believe, material needs to be made more accessible to them and a reading habit needs to be inculcated. An author may take several years to write one book but you can amass the knowledge and exposure out of it in days.

Tell us more about the NGOs that you have collaborated with.

We’ve got a CSR arm called Red Readerhood; we collaborate with a local beneficiary in any country we go to, we set up a stall at the sale and encourage them to donate any book of their choice which goes to whoever our beneficiary is associated with.

In light of the fact that BBW has received patronage from government authorities in other countries, what support would you expect from the government next time?

Off the top of my head, but the least we can expect is spreading the word of the sale to educational institutes in the public sector. Since the federal government has articulated plans of remodeling and refurbishing libraries, a book sale of this size is a great opportunity to buy from or since it is a foreign direct investment, they could help subsidise some costs. Moreover, with government’s support, we’d aim to go to other cities without being confined to metropolises.

What do you think about the reading culture of Pakistan in terms of motivation, accessibility and more?

The variety is rather scarce, if you talk about a city like Karachi which is larger than most countries: how many bookstores do you find? We often resort to cheaper options and allocate limited funds for this. This is something we need to improve on as a nation, because we don’t mind spending a specific sum on a meal but won’t invest the same in a good copy. Books are an investment and that’s how we need to look at it. •