In January of this year, Rahman (not his real name), an avid book collector, discovered a worn out copy of the "Cry of the Kalahari" by Mark and Delia Owens, tucked away on the top shelf of a bookstore at Dhaka's New Market. The book, published in 1992, is an autobiographical book detailing the experience of two young American zoologists studying wildlife in the Kalahari desert in Botswana in the mid-1970s. It was an international bestseller at the time. Rahman was elated.
The book carried a price tag of 4.95 pounds. Going by simple math, the price came to around 600 takas, discounting what the store - Zeenat Book Supply - would charge for importing the book and their mark-up.
And yet, Syed Mohammad Faisal, the proprietor at Zeenat, asked a paltry 400 takas from Rahman. The latter was baffled.
"We imported this in 1992 and back then the exchange rate was much cheaper," said a nonchalant Faisal.
"'Cry of The Kalahari' is truly a masterpiece," he went on, describing the contents of the book. "I used to import many books like this, which have become obscure to present-day readers: Davis F Hadland's 'Jami: The Persian Mystics', Fredrich Nietzsche's 'Why I am so Wise', Charles Darwin's 'On Natural Selection'."
"These are some excellent books on my shelves. But no buyers at all," he lamented.
Zeenat is perhaps one of the oldest surviving bookstores in Dhaka city. An everyday name for the city's English book readers, it is still held in reverence by avowed readers of the '70s and '80s.
But the owner embraces the reality: the destiny of his bookstore is entangled with the destiny of books.
Faisal has been running the store for 42 years. But the bookstore is much older. It dates back to 1963.
In that year, Syed Abdul Malek, his father, opened the store and named it after Faisal's elder sister Zeenat. Back then his father was a government employee in East Pakistan's Public Works Department.
"My father's office hours were from 7 am to 2 pm. He was a very active person and did not spend much time idling. At the time, there was no media or entertainment, except radio and newspaper. He thought about what he would do for the rest of the day. This led him to open the bookshop," Faisal explained.
Faisal passed his intermediate examination in 1974 from Notre Dame College. In the same year, his father retired from his job. From early '75, he used to sit at the store. He saw his father had gathered a debt of Tk30,000 for the shop.
Soon, after a little investigation, he came to understand that the staff were mishandling books and misappropriating money. His father never took the bookstore as a money-making business; profit was not his objective.
"My father was not a shrewd businessman in that sense; he was a government employee. He just used to sit in the store in the afternoon after his office hours and lunch. It was his hobby. Considering the situation, I thought of taking up a bigger role."
After working in the bookstore for one and a half years, he went to Tehran to seek a better life. But he had to come back just after one month.
"My father wanted to sell the store for around Tk 2 lakhs because he could not make a profit. That is why I had to come back to manage the shop and stop my father from selling the store. Till now, I am here in the shop."
1976 onwards, he has been handling the business. This time, returning from Tehran, he decided to import books. Before that, only local Bengali books, mainly from the Bangla Bazar area, were sold. "First, I started to import books from two publishers named "Book Centre" and "UBSPD" from Kolkata. That was the beginning."
At one point in time, Faisal had contact with 23 publishers in London. Presently, he has only contact with the Penguin Random House.
"Very rarely are classics sold. In Bangladesh, nobody even dares to import such books. It's highly likely that nobody is going to buy those. I sometimes show the audacity to bring one or two copies of these books with the hope that someone will someday appreciate these masterpieces."
He narrated a story to illustrate the state of his book business: "A nursery owner came to me to ask if I have 'The Rose Expert' by D G Hessayon. The book is an illustrated guide for growing and caring for roses. I used to sell 30 copies of this book a year. Right now, I cannot sell a single copy of this book and haven't sold one in many years."
He explained that the nursery owner probably did not know that through a smartphone he could click a picture of roses to know which kind it was and how to take care of that. Faisal also admitted that whoever knows how to use technology would not buy a book like this.
"In that respect, has this masterpiece of a book become obsolete?"
"Even I used to search books for various information about flowers and herbs in my garden. Sometimes I got the information and sometimes I did not. But nowadays, I just google it. And boom! Every information is at my fingertips."
"I don't blame the people or the era. It is just the reality of books," he said expressionlessly.
At bookstores that neighbour Zeenat at New Market, local Bengali books have slowly replaced original and imported books from London and Delhi.
"I used to keep Bengali books, but because of piracy, I could not compete in the Bengali book market. Original books have a hefty price tag compared to the pirated ones. I do not sell any pirated books. I had to let go of the Bengali books as customers were no longer willing to buy the original ones."
As Faisal spoke, a few customers came in. One of the customers asked if there was a pen. "Do you know the reason for this?" he asked me with regret. "Many bookstores have become stationary stores – selling books, notepad, pens and many things," he said without waiting for my answer. "And secondly, the average IQ of Bangladeshis has dropped!" he said jokingly.
He pointed out that many book shops have closed in recent years. He imagines that there will be some stationeries and hybrid shops. "Probably because stationary products cannot be downloaded. I always think about how we will survive. Let's forget about profit."
He is very doubtful whether there will be any bookstore in the New Market in five or ten years. Even the continuity of Zeenat is uncertain in his absence, he says. He admitted that his children would probably not be interested in keeping the bookstore; for it's not a profitable venture. They also lack interest.
"In fact, this is reality. I do not blame them. If you only sell four or five books a day, then the business is not viable. Even 10 to 15 years ago, the daily sale was around Tk30,000, now it has slashed down to three to seven thousand a day. Today's profit margin is very limited."
He also maintains that people are losing interest in books; for they possess no patience. In the flurry of media and other contents, people do not have the patience to read.
"Society runs on shallow knowledge. When you need to know about anything, just search on google or Wikipedia. You will get the necessary information. But you will lack in-depth knowledge on any subject."