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Dodging bombs for a good book in Pakistan

Bomb attacks have scared many shoppers away from Islamabad's storied bookstores, including foreign diplomats who used to come to unload their libraries as they moved to a new assignment.

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Secondhand bookstores are a storied institution in Islamabad, famous for their ubiquity. In one marketplace alone, Jumbo Books, Old Book Fair, and Mr. Old Books overflow with worn paperbacks; several more stores dot the Pakistani capital.

But like many shops here, these literary troves are struggling. Bomb attacks have scared many shoppers away, including foreign diplomats who used to come to unload their libraries as they moved to a new assignment.

Not to mention that, as delightful as finding an entire collection of "Pashtun Tales" or an oversized gilded hardcover edition of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" may be, there's a reason these books didn't sell the first time around.

Some shopkeepers, worried about their account books, have started stocking higher-profit material like textbooks, DVDs, and Dan Brown. (Bestsellers take a month to arrive on secondhand shelves, so pirated versions are ordered first and – at one-fifth the authentic version's price – they often sell better anyway.) The next step may be to peddle gel pens and leather planners the way the big chain bookstores do.

But some booksellers are trying to avoid such things – and not just because they don't have space. "I emphasize books," says Malik Ejaz, sitting in a corner of his shop, Old Book Collection, the wall behind him covered with phone numbers scribbled there over the past 24 years. "There's not a lot of money. But I am happy."

His customers sometimes stay for half an hour, craning to read the volumes stacked floor to ceiling and in the aisles – Edgar Allen Poe, Amitav Ghosh, and plenty of "chick lit," romance novels with their telltale covers featuring stick legs in high heels.

Sellers of used books may be feeling the squeeze, but they still have some breathing room. Pakistan doesn't have megachains like Borders, online bargain basements like Amazon, or electronic substitutes like the Kindle. And readers relish cheap books.

Mr. Ejaz says he isn't worried, not even by the multistory new-book behemoth across the plaza. "You can visit there to browse," he laughs, "then come here" to buy.


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