The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the knowledge centres of capital Dhaka. Many bookshops are slowly shutting down and publishing houses are struggling to survive. Amidst this crisis, writers and booklovers are seeking state patronage to help them survive.
The first hit came when Elephant Road's Dipanpur bookstore announced that they were closing down. Also shutting down are Katabon's Kobita Café and bookshops Moddhyoma, Nalonda, and Pencil in Banani.
According to the owners, the establishments have been closed for about four months because the pandemic forced book sales and earnings to plummet. Rents, salaries for employees, and other expenditures could no longer be borne.
"We did not expect that Dipanpur would see such a crisis," said founder Dr Razia Rahman Jolly. The bookshop was opened in memory of Faisal Arefin Dipan, a secular publisher killed by extremists. "We received unprecedented response when the news of us shutting down spread on social media. Now preparations are underway for us to get back on our feet. An incentive by the Ministry of Culture is also in the process."
Kobita Café director poet Nahida Ashrafi said, "There is no point in staying open during this crisis. It has been closed for the past three months. I have decided to fully shut down Kobita Café after two months and have informed the owner of the space about our decision. But the decision can still be overturned. Everybody's cooperation is crucial. Only then we can see how far we can go."
Researcher and Director General of Bangladesh Museum, Faizul Latif Chowdhury shared his thoughts on how to save these institutions that have been invaluable in shaping the creative and intellectual palettes of Dhaka residents. "The government, just like their contribution to the textile sector, can pay special attention to the bookshops, keeping in mind the importance of our culture," he told The Daily Star. "One solution can be to buy books from the struggling bookshops and distributing them to private and public libraries. Another option could be to bear the costs of the bookshops for at least six months. This will not only garner the government praises but also bring immense benefit to the literary and cultural society. The National Library can help them in this task."
Kobita Café and Dipanpur started their journey on a small scale, around four years ago. Gradually, both started operating as full-fledged bookstores. Both have several thousand books in their collection. They serve light snacks and there is an arrangement for afternoon lunch, and a stage for regular programmes. Kobita Café in particular became popular among the literary fans of Dhaka for its art and literature-based events. Both bookshops started their work from a deep love of books.
Emran Mahfuz is a poet, writer, and editor of Kaler Dhoni.
Towrin Zaman is a research consultant who writes in her spare time.