For bookworms, bookstores are sacred places. Over the years, Nilkhet has emerged as the book haven of Dhaka, comprising a multitude of stores that attract all types of readers and students of kindergarten to postgraduate level. There are few must-visit bookshops in other parts of the city that offer an outstanding collection of classics and latest titles – both in English and Bangla.
But, where did the people of Dhaka find books in an earlier time, say 50 to 60 years back? We have tried to feature some of the now-lost bookstores in the city that were once vibrant with footfalls of the booklovers of the city and beyond.
Provincial Book Depot
In the 1960s, the city of Dhaka was a small, lightly populated provincial city. The Bangabandhu National Stadium, formerly known as Dacca Stadium, on Jinnah Avenue (now Bangabandhu Avenue) was built not long ago. The name Mohammad Shahjahan was associated with the stadium. Shahjahan was the captain of Calcutta Mohammedan Sporting Club. Their family business was Provincial Book Depot, a famous bookstore at Victoria Park of Old Dhaka, which was basically a textbook shop. The bookshop was later shifted to the second floor of Dacca Stadium.
Mohammad Shahjahan then got some more space to expand. After that, a new book store named "Ideas" was set up, which was later named "Marietta".
The small shop on the second floor of the stadium was a big place for books in the 60s. Even classic English books from around the world were available there.
Marietta was a favourite haunt of all book lovers of Dhaka in the 60s and 70s. While saying the name, the eyes of the writer and publisher Dr Mofidul Haque were glittering, who recounted the history of the bookshop to TBS.
The shop was named after an English girl, Marietta Prokope, who helped Bangladesh during its Liberation War, he said.
Marietta was the secretary of Action Aid, an international organisation based in the UK.
Marietta, then a university student, along with others, took to the streets of London in protest after the Pakistan occupation army carried out genocide in Bangladesh on 25 March 1971. She also let "Action Bangladesh" use her flat at 34 Stratford Villa in North West London as its office.
On 1 August 1971, Action Aid organised a protest rally in London's Trafalgar Square in support of Bangladesh's Liberation War. 25,000 people joined the rally and 200 members of the British parliament announced their support for Bangladesh's independence. They chanted the slogans "Joi Bangla", "Long Live, Long Live, Sheikh Mujib, Sheikh Mujib". Marietta was one of the two key organisers of the rally.
Even staying in London, Marietta worked for Bangladesh during the whole time of the Liberation War and was overjoyed at Bangladesh's victory. She also visited Dhaka in early 1972. But after returning from Bangladesh, Marietta committed suicide. She was 30.
"Ideas" owner Khaled was deeply grief stricken by the death of Marietta, a true friend of Bangladesh, recalled Mofidul Haque, adding, "Besides naming the store after her, Khaled Bhai tried to keep the memories of "Marietta" alive through organising various campaigns such as blood donation drives and publishing posters."
"Khaled Shaheb knew his patrons. He knew which book would interest someone. So, many times, when he imported a new book, he would keep it for someone special who would like it," said Mofidul Haque, adding he used to bring in carefully selected books, which is why book lovers would frequent the store.
Another senior citizen reminiscing about Marietta said, "Khaled Shaheb used to bring books by famous writers including Mario Vargas Yoga, and Gabriel García Márquez."
Warsi Bookshop – first posh bookshop in Dhaka
Next to "Marietta" was "Standard Publishers" which might also be called a warehouse of the famous Soviet publishing house Progress Publishers, aka, Pragati Prokashani.
Bengali translations of the literary works of many Russian writers including Maxim Gorky were available there. Its proprietor was Ruhul Amin Nizami. "Standard Publishers" was their ancestral business.
The two shops "Provincial Book Depot" and "Standard Publishers" occupied quite a large floor area of Dacca stadium. Their inventories included all acclaimed international titles alongside those in Bangla, but English, Chinese and Russian books were mostly available among the imported books. All imported books were carefully selected.
Recycled books? Yes please
Used books were available in Bangla Bazar and Purana Paltan. Various Indian, British and American magazines were available there.
A hawker named Hashem used to buy magazines from American or British citizens and sell those in a van. He had a lot of customers, said Mofidul Haque.
Hashem did not get much schooling, but he was interested in reading books and had a revolutionary spirit, he added.
But Warsi Bookshop was the first elite bookshop in Dhaka in the 50s. They mainly brought art books and colouring materials. It was originally located on the ground floor of Naz Cinema Hall in Old Dhaka. Later, the store was shifted to New Market and eventually closed down permanently.
There was another book seller named "Seven Seas", which used to import German books.
New Market – another world of books
The first row on the left immediately after entering Gate 1 of New Market is known as Library Lane.
About 40 bookstores used to line the length of the wing of the market at one time. All levels of readers and booklovers used to visit the place as all types of books, including literature and textbooks were available there.
Nowroz Kitabistan, Zeenat Book Supply Limited, Knowledge Home, and Mohiuddin and Sons were some of the prominent bookstores in New Market.
Of them, Zeenat Book Supplies still exists. Established way back in the 60s, the bookshop is somehow surviving by selling only English titles.
There was another shop, which was run by writer Khandaker Mohammad Ilyas. Although the name of the shop is not known, various types of books, including Chinese ones, were also available there.
Ilyas was a leftist, said Mofidul Haque, adding his brother KG Mustafa was a linguist and journalist.
All these bookstores were the centre of adda for educated people. The city was not big, but it was lively. There was good communication among people. They used to come to shops not only for browsing books but also to meet friends and go for the aforementioned adda.
Gradually, as the pivot of the city moved from the Old Dacca to New Dacca, so did the bookstores. New Market emerged as the new hub of bookstores in the city. But bookshops in New Market would gradually lose their relevance over the decades. When Nilakshet started selling original books as well as old books and photocopied books, it tolled the death knell for the New Market book business.