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Fresh off the press: Inside the world of the Dhaka street book hawkers

  • Published at 12:28 am November 13th, 2018
Gofur Sardar/ book sellers
Mohamamad Gofur Sardar, a veteran bookseller, believes hawkers of books need to have infinite patience, keep their eyes and ears open to learn about new things Suprova Tasneem

How do they know exactly which books are lining the shelves of high street bookshops, and how do they manage to bring them directly to consumers for less than half of the price?

Hawkers are synonymous with the streets of Dhaka – in almost every corner of this city, one comes across hawkers peddling a range of goods, essential or otherwise. 

In recent years, booksellers have also become a staple on our streets, bringing some much needed relief to those spending endless hours in traffic.

But selling books is different from selling bottled water and toys; how can people who tend to be uneducated and live hand-to-mouth existences be so tuned in to the literary market? 

How do they know exactly which books are lining the shelves of high street bookshops, and how do they manage to bring them directly to consumers for less than half of the price?

‘It’s easier to make money off English books’

Mohammed Gofur Sardar is not the only hawker of books on Bijoy Sarani, but he is the only one with a physical impairment.

“I lost my left arm in a train accident many years ago,” he explains. “Since then, I’ve spent over 30 years being a hawker.”

Sardar used to sell cigarettes near Rasulbagh, until another hawker gave him the idea of selling books. 

“I started around the time when Hillary Clinton’s Living Historycame out,” he says. 

“I used to have Monica Ali books, too, as well as biographies like that of Mahathir Mohamad and Princess Diana. I used to have some Bangla books like Jibanananda Das and Sharatchandra, but it’s easier to make money off English books.”

Foyzul, another hawker who sells books at the Gulshan 2 circle signal, also says there is a greater demand for English books. 

“We can sell English books for more money, but people also buy them more,” he says. “It’s because we sell pirated copies that are otherwise much more expensive in shops. We can sell Tk1,200 books for Tk200, whereas you can get Bangla books everywhere.”

While hawkers do go to Banglabazar, the majority go to Nilkhet to buy books at wholesale rates. Sardar says he sells them on mainly to the drivers of cars that have stopped at traffic signals.

“We get an almost immediate feel for which books consumers are most interested in,” he says. “Sometimes people ask us, ‘why don’t you stock this?’ So we take note and tell the stores in Nilkhet, and they give us those books accordingly.”

How do they take note when most of the hawkers don’t know how to read or write? Foyzul replies with a broad smile: “It’s just habit. Our customers say the names so often, we end up memorizing them.”

In tune with foreign trends

A trip to Nilkhet confirms it as the most popular spot to pick up books wholesale. While most of the shops have educational texts, almost every shop that stocks English novels has a system for selling to hawkers.

“I have 8-10 regular hawkers, but there are others who come by as well,” says Abdul Motin, proprietor of Tajin Boi Ghar. “I always give them whatever new English books we have, and they try and see what they can sell. The rest they just bring back.”

Motin says people want to read English books because they want to learn the language. “Knowing English pays well in this city - everyone knows that,” he says.

While the people behind the counters in Nilkhet are reticent at first, it becomes obvious after a while that the trick is to acquire an original copy first, and then use local printing presses - usually based in Banglabazar - to make copies for the local market.

“Once upon a time we had to bring in books from India,” says Saidul, one of the small store owners in Nilkhet. “But now there are all these stores like Pathak Samabesh and Batighar, and we can just buy from there. Everybody who has access to a press does it, and there are hundreds of them in the city.”

Mehedi Hasan, one of the younger managers at Mollah Books, says the internet has revolutionised the local book market. 

“You don’t need to go into stores to acquire these books anymore,” he says. “People can just download PDFs now, and you can also look online to see which books are selling more in foreign markets and download those.”

Not all of the hawkers have moved with the times, however. 

“My nephew looks up popular books online and we try and get them, but I am too old-fashioned for that,” says Motin. 

“You just need to have a feel for the market, and to keep your ears open when people come looking for books. Like right now, everyone wants self-help books like The Power of Habit.”

The veteran hawker, Gofur Sardar, is also more reliant on his wits.

“Being a bookseller is like being a spider in a nest,” he says. 

“You need to have infinite patience, keep your eyes and ears open to learn about new things, and you just have to persist.”