Oxford University Press: Dive Deep into Literature
I had only seen stalls by Oxford University Press at various festivals, or the occasional portable library in the form of a bus, but I had never paid a visit to their outlet. In fact, I didn’t even know where it was. When I reached the Mini Market roundabout, I saw it quietly holding its seat in a corner. A modest sign board made its presence known to passers-by.
A self-acknowledged reading buff, Momin discovers the magical charm of Oxford University Press, Lahore. The oft-overlooked bookstore carries some of the rarest volumes in publication. A must visit for any serious reader.
With my tote bag hanging by the right side of my hip, I timidly walked in. It wasn’t that the wall to wall blue decor turned me off; it was merely the air of an entity respected world over, one that has had a long history of making footprints even in the sand. I was unsure as to whether I should seek permission to be inside. I waited for someone to turn around and tell me off, nobody bothered. I silently began scanning the bookshelves.
For avid readers (or wannabe avid readers like me), the presence of printed volumes feels like a Red Bull injection, straight to the heart. I thumbed through the books that lined the shelves, stiff and virginal. As I scanned cover after cover I discovered that most were written by writers from the region, specifically the sub-continent. Novels, short stories, translations, plays, biographies, anthologies, collected works and literary criticism: they had me reaching out with both hands, hungrily reading the blurbs at the back.
They were the kind of ethnically and indigenously relevant works which individuals like me require, individuals who are utterly unaware of local literature. My exposure to writings and writers of this sort have been minimal. It was a bittersweet fascination, to have resonance with those stacked books and yet not quite so.
Making a mental to-buy list, I decided to explore the rest of the bookstore (yes, this was just one corner) which largely consisted of academic books for students of all grades as well as children’s books. I just strolled past these shelves. I had no desire to sit down and skim through workbooks I had filled up over the course of my schooling. Momentarily I was tempted to let nostalgia drip over me, but it was a fleeting desire.
By the time I wanted to ask the manager some questions about Oxford University Press, my social-anxiety had already crept up. I never know how to introduce myself while conducting an interview. It’s partly due to petite physique, which makes me look like a kid from O levels not minding his own business. With a shaky voice, I asked a staff member in front of me whether he felt like answering my questions. He was in the middle of reorganizing a shelf and redirected me towards the cashier.
He was a man exuding simplicity. Soft-spoken and a pleasant conversationalist, he told me, “Of course, I won’t tell you certain things that are meant to be confidential, but other than that, you can ask me anything you want.”
I was grateful to have been so quickly absolved of the burden of initiating conversation. When I asked how many outlets Oxford University Press had around Lahore, I was surprised to know this was the only one in the city. Its upper floor serves as a warehouse. Karachi, on the other hand, has plenty, including an Editorial Department. The printing, he said, was outsourced.
I made it a point to compliment the collection they had of South Asian literature, books that you usually don’t find elsewhere.
“There’s no doubt that foreign authors are given more preference over local authors which is why they are so common to come by.” Not sure if he was trying to be a little diplomatic by not particularly mentioning what Oxford University Press’ own personal focus was.
I gathered, on my own, that the preservation of local culture, arts and history perhaps factored into the company’s goals. Speaking of authors, though, I expressed how students would find their academic collection really helpful. He continued, “Yes, a lot of students visit our store. A lot of parents come along with them to get their children books they want to read. We’ve even had a lot of authors walk in to have a look around the store.”
Yeah, they probably won’t be walking in anytime that I’m here. And what about how well the store holds its own besides other bookstores?
“It’s not doing bad but people definitely prefer reading less these days, in general. They largely lean towards the digital format, the internet being a convenient source for them to look up anything they want information on.” Yes, the dismay in his voice got to me too.
Then I shifted to his personal experience working over here, which I wasn’t sure if I should venture into. But, given his casual handling of the entire interaction, he displayed no reservations about giving details about the topic.
“Definitely, one prefers working in a multinational company than a local company,” he said. “You get better pay and good packages in general”. I don’t really know what ‘good package’ means. I was hesitant to ask. I thought it might be too personal.
But he was able to tell me that he gets a one-time fifty percent discount on any book he wants to buy. Beyond that, the regular discounts that apply to all other customers apply to him as well. However, none of it is done without paperwork, in accordance with the company’s policy.
Having asked him so many professional questions, I was curious to poke around about his own choices.
“What is the last book you read?” I asked.
He had to think for a while.
“I read the first volume of Poora Manto. I haven’t been able to read the rest but I really liked this one. But, truth be told, I don’t read much.”
I asked why.
“I don’t get enough time. I just go home, spend time with my family, take care of regular chores at home and go to bed. And then the same day happens again.”
Then he paused for a while, perhaps to really recall anything else he had read.
“When we receive new stocks, I go through a page or two at times, along with the contents. But I never go beyond that. But, yes, I am able to recognize titles and their authors both because they are in front of me and customers often inquire about our inventory.”
I paid for two books I had tucked in my arm, took a few pictures of the store (something nobody noticed) and was about to walk out when it hit me: maybe I needed to ask about the pictures. I asked them, “Umm, I was wondering if I could take pictures of the store, just for my project.”
He told me he’d have to ask someone. He dialed a number and the tone in his voice told me there was a “no” from the authority figure.
I just quietly walked out of the store.
Oxford University Press, Gulberg, +(92)42 35778680