Srinagar: For Saniyasnain Chiloo, 28, the musty smell of ageing books, which he treats as objects of devotion, is the best perfume, and one he revels in. The owner of one of the oldest bookstores in Kashmir, ‘Bestseller’, he tracks down the greatest collection of new and old books across the world for the bibliomaniacs of the Valley, and sells them at heavy discounts.
What makes the store all the more special is the fact that there are books for everyone. Those who cannot afford to buy one are given books for free.
“I have seen my father collecting books since my school days, and the idea behind the shop was to create a beautiful space that inspires people to read, and share the knowledge with others,” Saniyasnain said.
A stone’s throw away from the iconic clock tower of Lal Chowk, and opposite the one of the oldest missionary schools, Tyndale Biscoe, stands a nondescript building where once stood a hotel.
Times have changed around it but the building – home to the bookshop – has remained immune to the vagaries of time. Bestseller was established at least four decades ago, in the 1980s, by Sanaulluah Chillo.
Till recently, only a few elderly people frequented the bookshop, but now it presents a study in contrast. This happened after Sanaullah’s young son, Saniyasnain, took over the reins of the shop and decided to give it an overhaul in 2017.
Old and young bibliophiles now mingle together, and the shop presents a neat division. On one side, like the holiest sanctum inside a shrine, is a section stacked with religious books, mainly Islamic literature of all hues.
On the other side, children flit about like butterflies, flipping pages of glossy illustrated children’s books, while young adults browse through the fiction section comprising popular authors like Jeffery Archer, Arundhati Roy and modern-day classics like The Da Vinci Code. Latest books by Kashmiri authors like Plague upon Us by Shabir Ahmad Mir can also be seen, and there’s always the possibility of coming across a lesser-known author while you browse.
“After completing my MBA from Pune, I started assisting my dad in 2017. With time, I realised people who love to read, many of whom are high school and college students, save their pocket money to buy books written by their favourite authors. And most of the books are priced Rs 400 and above. This price is not affordable for school and college-going students, hence the deal. The prices we offer start ambitiously at Rs 250 and can go as low as Rs 150 and beyond,” he said.
He adds, “Further, I don’t make profit from the books written by upcoming authors of the Valley so that their morale doesn’t go down.”
The bookshop stocks rare books like those by poets Sahir Ludhianvi or Saghar Sidiqui, books of Islamic Sufism like Kashfal Majub or books on Urdu literature like Patras Bukhari’s collection of humorous essays, which cannot be found anywhere else in the Valley or even online.
“Similarly, the store hosts rare whole collections of authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and O Henry, at dirt cheap prices. Literature aficionados have long known the shop is most likely to stock the book they are looking for,” Saniyasain said.
Recalling the experience of a customer who found a hard-to-find book from his store, he said, “A man once turned up at the shop. He was looking for the diwan of Saghar Sidiqui. He had searched for the book everywhere but could not find it. When he spotted the book on one of the shelves at the shop, his eyes welled up with tears. I remember his emotional connection with the book and how he offered me Rs 100 extra as a token of love as his search had ended.”
However, it is not easy to sustain the business in a region where frequent lockdowns have become the norm rather than an exception. Saniyasnain recalls that before COVID-19 shut off businesses, there was another shut down following the dilution of Article 370 in August 2019.
“There was a complete internet shutdown and so people could no longer read or download PDFs from the internet. During that time, people took to reading hard copies because there were no online PDFs available and neither could they purchase any online.”
He said that it was during that time that they realised there should be books available at home, as the security situation always changes here.
“I used to provide books to desperate customers at a great risk to life and limb by entering the store through the backdoor. Owing to the lockdowns, no business strategy works here. The publisher receives delayed payments here because of frequent shutdowns. It definitely affects the bond between the publisher and bookstore but there is no choice except to work on just trust and goodwill,” Saniyasnain said.
Commenting on whether they house any sensitive content, Sanaullah recalls that once they had set up a stall outside once where they had put on display a novel The Golden House by Salman Rushdie.
“A passerby came in and created quite a ruckus about why we were stocking an anti-Islamic author. No one came to our rescue and we had to withdraw the book from the display. Since then, we avoid displaying his collection publicly,” he said.
A young doctor and writer, Khawar Khan Achakzai, who often frequents the shop, said he prefers this bookstore over other shops because the rates are very reasonable.
“It is a store that has the widest variety of books on almost every genre like history, politics, culture, philosophy, metaphysics. I found some very rare books in there which I had been looking for for years. The store owner is extremely friendly and is generous with discounts, especially to students,” Achakzai said.
Similarly, academic and poet Huzaifa Pandit said, “I remember back in 2005, I purchased my first book with my own money earned from tutoring at the shop – a rare bound edition of the collected works of Sherlock Holmes. Even at that time it was the only shop that stocked affordable books. Since then, I have purchased several books including diwans of my favourite poets from the shop. No other shop in Srinagar stocks them.”
Another book lover and doctor, Irtifa Kanth, said, “I was looking for some old books on Kashmiri history and literature but could find them nowhere. Then one day, on a whim I looked in the shop, and to my surprise and delight found the books. It has been my favourite book haunt since.”
Online portals and chains have more or less taken over the book buying experience. However, Saniyasnain believes that there is still a major chunk of the population that prefers to buy hard copies from brick and mortar stores and finds reading PDFs and ordering online tedious.
Therefore, he has great plans in store for the business. He plans to convert the space into a lively and dynamic place for book lovers.
First, he plans to venture into book publishing himself, so that he can better control the supply and prices of books, and also give budding voices a medium to express themselves.
“Second, I would love to host book launches and readings at the store so that authors can interact with their audiences, and savour the experience,” he said.
Hirra Izmat is a Srinagar-based reporter.