Two weeks ago, I blogged about my favourite book haunts. I thought I would give special mention to one of them today – Alvi Book Bank.
When we first moved to Pakistan back in 2004, Mars and I had to make a few adjustments in our lives. In Singapore, we were used to going on field trips and bargain shopping sprees, visiting with friends for play dates and taking off for a meal out on a whim if we so desired. In Pakistan though, the days seemed to yawn ahead of us. There was little to do, nowhere to go and no friends to visit.
Then we discovered Alvi Book Bank and the little unassuming second-hand store made our lives more than bearable. I was a newish mum and homeschooler then trying to build a library for little Mars, who was then an only child. I had had to leave most of our books in Singapore during the move (oh! how that hurt!) so Alvi Book Bank was truly a godsend. Mr Fareed Ahmed Alvi knew his business and clearly loved books with a passion for his store was always crammed with some of the best titles for children that the literary world had to offer. My daughter and I would spend hours in there, painstakingly rifling through pile after pile of books, giggling smugly everytime we found a good book. When we weren’t at the store, we would wonder if Mr Alvi had any new stock and worried that others would get to them before we could.
When we moved back to Singapore in 2006, we missed Mr Alvi’s store. None of the second-hand bookstores in Singapore could compare in terms of price, range and charm. (We actually missed Pakistan’s dust and mess!) We continued to visit Alvi’s Book Bank every time we visited our family in Islamabad. The staff got to know us. We were such regulars that they would let us have the run of the place and even let us have the store’s only torchlight when there were power outages – they knew that not even a blackout could drive us away :)
Mr Alvi wasn’t always at his store but he too began to recognise us as faithful customers, this time with Bear in tow. Still, he maintained his reserve and barely cracked a smile, his expression always aloof. My husband joked that he was a hard businessman, never giving discounts even to long-time customers. We had no issues with that however – his books were well-chosen and equally well-priced.
Then one day, we visited the store again and found it vacated. The staff at the neighbouring stores saw us looking perplexed and told us that he had moved to a smaller place above. We trudged up the stairs and wondered how he could possibly fit all his books into such a tiny room. It turned out, he couldn’t and had had to move most of them to a warehouse. His landlord had raised the rent and he couldn’t afford it. The room was temporary till he could find new premises, he said. He looked worried but had not lost his dignified carriage and demeanor. He looked a little disappointed then, but definitely not beaten. There was something about the distinguished gentleman that assured us that he would bounce back from the setback.
In his quest for more a more affordable shop, he was to move a few more times. My family and I began to have a cat-and-mouse relationship with Mr Alvi and his books.
When we finally returned to settle in Islamabad once again in 2008, Mr Alvi had moved yet again. The tiny room he had occupied was vacant and we were left wondering where he had gone this time. We asked the other store owners and drove to the major shopping areas but we had no luck. Then one day, a friend told me about a large bookstore near a pharmacy at Blue Area, a business district. We went immediately (I know, it sounds obsessive) and were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books.
As we browsed, my husband ran up to me excitedly. “It’s Alvi!” he whispered fiercely. I was too caught up by the books to pay attention so he grabbed by arm and pointed to a gentleman in a cream hat. “It’s HIM! This is HIS STORE!” He went to talk to Mr Alvi and introduced himself. From a distance, I could see his cool veneer cracking and he seemed pleased that he had such a faithful following in my kids who looked so obviously delighted to see him.
Mr Alvi moved another two times and both times we tracked him down. His last location was at a new housing area at a sector called E/11-3, quite a distance from our home. The store was a little small and his books were stacked so dangerously high that I often wondered if he would have to call for a rescue team to extricate us if we upset the piles by accident.
By then, Mr Alvi no longer kept my kids at arm’s length and would engage in friendly chats with them. He would recommend titles to them and ask his staff to climb the mountainous piles and throw them down to my kids whom he ordered to stand at a safe distance. When the summer days were hot, he would offer the kids cold drinks and turn on the fan for them. He was well-acquainted with their preferences and saved them some wonderful gems – collections of English books and Science magazines in mint condition. He even gave us discounts without us ever hinting for them. We took this as a sign that we had officially broken the ice with Mr Alvi :)
We saw Mr Alvi a few weeks ago at another bookstore. We had not visited his shop in a while so my elder daughter greeted him. We made a promise to ourselves to visit his store once again but our plans were always on the backburner as the kids were busy with studies and classes.
My heart feels heavy as I write this. I truly wish we had managed to go. I don’t know what difference it would have made, but I wish we had.
On Wednesday, 28 August 2010, Mr Fareed Ahmed Alvi was one of 152 people who perished when Airblue’s flight ED 202 from Karachi crashed in Margalla Hills. He had been flying home after visiting his elder brother Professor Tauheed Ahmed Alvi, of DJ Science College in Karachi. I am told that he was travelling with two of children and is survived by his wife and a daughter. Inna lilla wa inna ilayhi raji`oon. Surely we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return.
May Allah forgive him and give him the very best in the hereafter … ameen.
May He forgive all who perished in the flight and grant them paradise … ameen.
May He give strength and fortitude to all the bereaved families in this time of adversity … ameen.
O Allah! Let not any of our sins go unforgiven, nor any of our worries undispelled, nor any of our needs and difficulties unfulfilled, let the end of our deeds be the best of all … ameen.