Readers left in the lurch as coronavirus crisis keeps bookstores shut

  • Sajidul Haque bdnews24.com
    Published: 2020-05-19 21:01:58 BdST

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As Italy gradually relaxed its lockdown measures after five weeks in turmoil due to the coronavirus pandemic, the first places to reopen were bookstores. In Germany, France, and Belgium, too, booksellers are viewed as an indispensable part of public life.

It's a shame, the same cannot be said for Bangladesh where bookstores, considered non-essential enterprises, remain shuttered even as the government begins to gradually unwind the nationwide lockdown.

“Amid the lockdown, one of the main ways to nurture your mental health is to read books. Reading is definitely a therapeutic activity,” says GH Habib, a writer and translator.

As the coronavirus epidemic spreads across the country, the closure of both physical and online book shops have added to the woes of avid readers in Bangladesh.

Publishers, on the other hand, have sought assistance from the government, saying they were facing big losses, which would not be recoverable even in a year.

Bangladesh reported its first cases of the coronavirus in early March. The disease has since infected more than 25,000 people and killed 370.

In an effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, the government ordered a shutdown of all offices, educational institutions and shops across the country from Mar 26, allowing only the medicine stores and shops selling essential goods to stay open.

Unable to buy the books of their choice, many readers are struggling to cope with the tedium of sheltering in place throughout the seemingly endless hours in lockdown.

“Usually, I buy books every month, but I couldn’t buy a single one in the last two months. The shops are closed. Also, I doubt I would have gone to the shops if they were open,” said Amzad Hossain, who works at Transparency International, Bangladesh.

Online bookstores could provide a much-needed respite to readers during this crisis, he added.

“I used to buy books regularly from an online store, but they stopped delivering during the shutdown. Now I've stuck at home for a long time without buying any new books,” lamented filmmaker Saki Farzana.

Libraries are also closed during the lockdown.

Readers who are not comfortable using an electronic device to read are having the most trouble, according to Sheikh Mohammed Saleh Rabbi, a former journalist.

“I did buy a few books while preparing to stay at home before the lockdown was enforced. But I didn't expect the lockdown to linger for two months. I am currently reading 'The Decameron' by Giovanni Boccaccio as it is available on Kindle," he said.

"I am translating it along the way with my friends. But I really can’t accept that books are not considered an essential commodity, and thus, are not at our disposal right now."

Deepankar Das, publisher and owner of bookstore Batighar, said he had planned to open a sales centre when the lockdown was relaxed on May 10, but could not do it due to a lack of manpower.

“Those running online bookstores can’t deliver the books as the courier services have not restarted as yet,” he said.

Among those selling books of the creative genres, 5 percent have a stable business and can survive the crisis, Deepankar believes. “But others may not be able to ride it out,” he said. 

Publishers of books of creative genres belong to a group of small and medium entrepreneurs who are counting losses during the shutdown, Farid Ahmed, president of Gyan O Srijanshil Prokashak Samity told bdnews24.com. This is because the lockdown exception made for other shops did not apply to bookstores.

“It will take time for the book business to run in full swing even after the economy restarts. Many of us see reading a book as a creative activity or a source of entertainment and are not ready to accept it as an essential part of our lives."

"This will have consequences on the industry. The worst case scenario is that the business will fully resume in February next year when the Ekushey Book Fair kicks off,” he said.

Farid called for a greater allocation in the government's budget to buy books in a bid to help the floundering publishing industry.

“We have appealed to the prime minister and to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. We don’t need aid, but assistance. We seek incentives not donations. The government buys books regularly but on a low budget. We called on them to increase their budget.”

The publisher also demanded that libraries across the country be opened with people only being allowed to borrow books and leave to maintain the social distancing norms.

Author Habib believes publishers and bookstores could work out a special arrangement with the help of the government's postal and courier services to deliver books to readers.

He also urged publishers to consider publishing e-books considering the prevailing circumstances.

“I urge the government to provide an incentive package to the publishing industry and ensure its proper management,” he said.