Maniza Naqvi on Saving Karachi’s Oldest Bookstore

Maniza Naqvi at Literary Hub: Back in December 2016, I was sitting in my office at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., feeling unmoored and disheartened. Every day, I walked through Lafayette Park in front of the White House to get to my work. But lately, the noise had been so loud and ugly about the Muslim ban and building a wall. I was beginning to panic. What’s a person like me even supposed to do about this? Why am I even here?

I came from Pakistan thirty years ago for my job. I absolutely love my job. I get to work with national and local governments and villages to build social safety nets in order to reduce poverty. I get to design and supervise projects. I don’t actually do anything with my own hands, but I’m on the ground in many different countries, and I travel a lot. And now—as if flying while Muslim wasn’t fun enough—they’re going to ban me too?

I feel scattered all over the map. My writing helps to ground me. But still, I feel like I need a change. I need someone to throw me a lifeline.

That day, while I’m sitting at my desk, munching a salad at lunchtime, an article pops up in my newsfeed. It’s about one of the oldest bookshops in Karachi, Pakistan: Pioneer Book House. Never heard of it.

A Restoration of Hope

But a long time ago, for a short while, I lived and worked in Karachi. I had a car of my own, and I explored the whole city— particularly the old part of the city—which has these buildings that are decaying but are beautiful to me. They’re in this Indo-Saracenic, European architectural style. I think I’ve lived longer in Karachi in my imagination than I have in reality. But isn’t that the way it is about the places you leave behind? They’re more magical in memory.

Anyways, this article says that Pioneer Book House, which has been open since 1945, is about to be sold by the owner, Zafar Hussain.

He says, “No one buys books.”

There’s a photograph of the bookshop in the article, and I look at it, and I feel like I’m fusing with the photograph. There’s even a sound in my head like a whaaaa. I feel like, Oh my God, this is one of those old beautiful buildings. And what would happen if all the bookshops in the world start to close down? Hate is going to rise.

I can do this. I can save a bookshop.

I think the universe is throwing me a lifeline.

The next thing I know, I’ve taken all my accumulated leave, and I’m on a flight to Karachi. I’ve catapulted myself from the heart of Washington, D.C., to the heart of old Karachi.

And now I’m standing outside Pioneer Book House in the clattering, clanging, busy bazaar, and I’m looking into the shop. I can see that inside, it’s dark, and there’s a man sitting, hunched over. He’s bearded; he looks to me like he’s despairing. I ask him if I can come in. He nods, so I go in and sit next to him. This is Zafar sahib.

I introduce myself as a writer. I tell him I read this article, and I want to help him save his bookshop.

He’s not buying it. He wants to sell the shop. He says he has a family to take care of—a wife, four children, a mother, and a brother.

He says, “No one buys books.”

His grandfather opened this shop seventy-one years ago.

He says, “Now someone will buy this bookshop and turn it into a biryani shop or a mobile phone shop because biryani sells, and mobile phones sell, and nobody buys books.”

I look around me. There are wires hanging from the ceiling. In one corner, there’s a broken fan and a broken chair. In another corner, there are two car doors—dented—and car tires. Car parts?! There are books spilling out of bookshelves, covered in one-inch-thick dust and grime. There is crumpled newspaper lying in heaps and heaps all over the floor. And this tiny little bookshop is lined by bookshelves.

Zafar sahib says, “These are made of teak.”

When I ooh and aah, he says, “Well, if you think this is beautiful, wait until you see the upstairs.”

And he points to the stairs in the back.

I go up the stairs and suddenly, I’m in this large, cavernous space of three huge rooms lying in the dark. The condition here is like the bookshop downstairs, only worse.

But it appears magical to me. It’s a quiet space, a silent space, a waiting space. I feel like it’s a waiting-for-me kind of a space.

In the back room, there’s a gigantic table, just groaning under piles of books, pamphlets, cloth, and paper—all covered in dust. I think, This room could be a book reading room, and that one could be an art gallery.

I go rushing downstairs, and I sit next to Zafar sahib, and I say, “Zafar sahib, you might think you’re invisible. You might think no one sees you or sees your shop here. But just think—what would happen if all the bookshops close down?”

Something about my impassioned plea moves him, apparently, because he agrees for me to come back the next day and talk to him some more. So, I go back the next day, and the one after that, and the one after that, until Zafar sahib relents and agrees for me to sort out his whole shop and show him that it can work as a bookshop.

Oh, I’m just overjoyed! I’m so appreciative and grateful for his kindness, for his generosity, for his indulging me this way and letting me into his shop in this manner. That night, I email back to Washington, D.C., and request and receive permission to telecommute.

The next day, I show up at Pioneer Book House with brooms and dusters in hand and ask Zafar sahib which books, which bookshelves, and which floors I can start cleaning.

I do nothing without his permission, and as soon as it’s granted, I get started. Dusting and cleaning and sorting. And as I do this, I talk and talk, while Zafar sahib sits, staring out at the street glumly. But I ask him a hundred questions about the Pioneer Book House’s history, the history of his family, and the history of the city, until he finally melts and starts answering them.

As he talks, and as I clean and sweep, I begin to realize and appreciate even more the troubles that Karachi has gone through, the troubles this city has faced. There’s a war going on in Afghanistan next door, and the fallout has been on the city. It’s a wonder that shopkeepers have been able to keep their shops open, let alone hold on to their properties. And there’s so much distrust.

I know I must seem like an oddity here. A woman of my background sweeping and dusting and cleaning in the bazaar. I would have seemed like an oddity under any circumstance. But I just ignore that and ratchet up my clueless, can-do spirit. I’m going for endearing.

Even so, one day a shopkeeper in the neighborhood comes in, points a finger at me, and says, “American agent, FBI!”

I’m so startled.

I say, “FBI? Wouldn’t CIA make more sense here?”

Everybody in the shop bursts out laughing. In the coming days, I make friends with that shopkeeper and other shopkeepers, as well as street vendors and a traffic cop or two. Every day, at least two people come in to have lunch with Zafar sahib. And everybody eats out of a communal plate, so that if there are four hands dipping into the plate, the fifth is mine.

And this means the world to me. I feel so welcomed, so appreciated. Like I matter here. I’m getting to do things with my own hands. And as I sweep and dust and clean in the shop, I feel like I’m spinning and dancing in the bazaar. I mean, what could be better than this? I’m a World Banker by night and a sweeper in a bookshop by day.

But I know I could show up here tomorrow, and Zafar sahib could tell me that he’s sold his property, and the Pioneer Book House is destined to become the Good Luck Biryani Shop. But, until that happens, I’m going to try my darndest to keep this shop open.

It takes me about twenty days to sort through the whole shop. Every day, I’m covered with dust and grime, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. But I want to do everything with my own hands. I’m lifting loads and loads of bags filled with paper and books that need to be discarded and sent to the recycler. But I can’t do everything myself.

I need to get an electrician, for example, to fix the wiring. And to put in new lights and new lamps. I get these embroidered caps from the bazaar next door to put in between the books on the bookshelves. I get these glass bottles—green, red, yellow, blue—from the old bottles bazaar nearby to put in glass shelves in the window to catch the light. I get chairs to put around the reading table.

And those car parts? Zafar sahib never let me throw those out. But, shoved in the corner under the right light—modern art?

When the lights go on, oh, when the lights go on, the place is bathed in golden light. It has such great bones. It looks so beautiful, even Zafar sahib is smiling, and he’s amazed. And I think maybe that’s all it takes—for someone to come in and turn the lights back on.

In the coming days, we plan to have a book reading; at least twenty-five people will come. We plan it down to the snacks and the tea we are going to serve. I scrub the floors as much as I can upstairs. I scrub them and scrub them until I learn this important lesson: that dust is a reality in Karachi. I can dust and clean all I want, and it’s going to come back.

When the book reading begins, I ask Zafar sahib to sit and enjoy the guests in his house, to enjoy the book reading. I tell him that I will go downstairs and mind the shop with his son.

I go downstairs, and I sit there looking out at the street. I feel so overwhelmed. What could be better than this? The house is full of people. There’s a book reading going on here for the first time. And I think, This boat might be afloat. This bookshop stands a chance.

It’s been five years, and Pioneer Book House’s doors are still open. The bookshop is in the hands of the family that has owned it for seventy-six years now.

And me? I feel like all my scattered parts came together. When the noise and ugliness got so loud, I focused in on a point of beauty. I may have rescued a bookshop, but I’m pretty sure the bookshop rescued me.

The original article link.

Maniza Naqvi is a Pakistani American novelist and short story writer. Her five novels are Mass Transit (1998), On Air (2000), Stay with Me (2004), A Matter of Detail (2008), and The Inn (2021). Her book of short stories and poems is called Sarajevo Saturdays (2009). Her short story “An Impossible Shade of Home Brew” is included in the anthology And Then the World Changed. Her short story “A Brief Acquaintance” is included in the anthology Neither Night nor Day. Her short story “Muse” is included in the anthology Shaping the World. Her play “That Sara Aziz” is included in the anthology Shattering Stereotypes and was produced at the Minneapolis Fringe Festival. Her book A Guest in the House chronicles her time at the Pioneer Book House in Karachi and provides a lens into the history of the city. She is a Monday columnist for She has thirty years of experience in social protection and social development; managing the preparation, design, and supervision of social safety nets; community development; and job creation programs. Maniza is the founder and CEO of the e-book startup The Little Book Company, Pakistan’s first e-book platform