Not the Banglabazar it once used to be
A few yards south of the capital's Bahadur Shah Park, near Sadarghat terminal, is a bend where you will find the age-old Banglabazar Government Girls High School and missionary-run Heed International School. And surrounding them is a long series of book stores and stationery shops, where students and their guardians would throng to on a usual day to buy books, pens and pencils.
To widen profits, shopkeepers put comics, cartoon books, colourful stickers and slime toys on display shelves, so that the children would get enticed by the items and convince their parents to buy them something.
This used to be a common sight in the pre-Covid-19 era.
The unprecedented long closure of educational institutions has taken a tremendous toll on the book and stationery business in Banglabazar. It troubled some shopkeepers so badly that they had to give up the business.
Take the example of Rahat Varieties Store, a stationery shop located next to the entrance of Heed International School. Every morning the bookshop would be crammed with students. Now, a cutlery shop has taken its place, and utensils line the display instead of stationery.
"He [Rakib Sheikh, owner of the store] failed to pay six months' rent. Later, he adjusted it with the advance payment and left Dhaka," said Md Ali, proprietor of Prottasha Library, which was right next to Rakib's shop.
Asked about his business, Ali said, "Daily sales now stand between Tk 180-300. It used to be Tk 5,000-7,000 before."
Ali is also distressed about five months' outstanding rent. "It's now hard to run family expenses; at least Tk 300 is needed to buy daily essentials," he said.
In trying to deal with the situation, Ali has eaten up his savings worth about Tk 1 lakh, and borrowed another lakh to run his family.
In front Sonali Bank's footpath at Sadarghat intersection, there are some makeshift shops that sell old textbooks, and guidebooks up to honours levels among other items.
Md Khaza, who has been involved in the business for more than two decades, said their customers are mainly students, but due to the closure, very few show up at the shop.
"Selling even one or two books has become a challenge now. No one is there to look at our pain," he said out of frustration.
There are scores of old bookshops adjacent to Dhaka Sadar Post Office in Banglabazar.
Sixty-year-old Monirul Islam was asking passers-by to visit his shop, hoping for some potential buyers.
"I've been in this business since I was 10 years old. I accompanied my father to his business during the British period, and after independence, I took the helm. Those were the rosy days of our lives," he said.
According to him, the frequent changes in curriculum puts a negative impact on his business. "On top of that, the closure [of educational institutions] has completely destroyed me. My brothers are helping me with money to run my family," said Monirul, his voice choking as he spoke.
The prolonged closure is also devastating age-old publishers.
Many grew up reading "Adarsha Lipi" of Dhakaswari Library, which has been in business since independence while many have graduated reading the publisher's books at intermediate and honours levels.
Talking to this correspondent on May 6, Shambhu Nath Ghosh, director of Dhakaswari Library, said it has become difficult to take home Tk 1,500 a week. "Today, I sold a book at Tk 680; the order was placed online. Yesterday [May 05], I sold books worth only Tk 200."
Books worth lakhs were stacked up in his library. "I cannot go for publication unless these are sold," he said.
Kazal Book Depot's supervisor Sanjoy Sarker said their daily sales have dropped to Tk 10,000 from Tk 1 lakh.
Asked, Bangladesh Publishers and Booksellers Association vice president Shamal Paul said they have 26,000 members across the country. "If we suppose that each member's daily sales are Tk 10,000 [during the pandemic], then business worth around Tk 11,000 crore was disrupted in the last 14 months."
"It's a huge loss. We could neither ask the government to open educational institutions, nor bear the sufferings," he said.
Not only the publishers or book sellers, but workers at binding houses, those involved in printing, inking and composing, and marketing officers are also going through tough times, he added.