Panjeree Book Shop (PBS), a sister concern of Panjeree Publications Ltd., started its journey in 2010. It was the first ever book café in the country.
A library filled with a diverse array of books, along with a café, a stationery shop and a mini theatre, it was a new experience for everyone.
The initial response from customers was overwhelming.
However, with the introduction of kindle and availability of pdf and pirated books, the journey of PBS did not go well with time.
When the pandemic came, the book shop faced even more difficulties.
But with adoption of technology and strategic decisions, they managed to survive the crisis.
The spirit of dreaming and doing something innovative started with Abdullah Al Baki(and his two other partners – Mr. Kamrul Hasan Shayok and Mr. Kawsar Hasan), who took over his fathers' business of publication after completing his studies at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).
Extracting profit from the business was not their sole objective; rather they wanted to promote a healthy reading habit among students.
They often thought of creating a space where students will get their academic and fictional books all at one place, but was not sure of how to make young minds curious about books.
They got the answer when they came across book cafés in the cities of England and France while travelling.
Such cafés are filled with a variety of books and you can indulge in them, while enjoying a cup of aromatic coffee.
An idea of having something similar in Bangladesh came to them.
They thought it might interest students into coming to the store, spend more time there and help them make a connection with books.
They discussed this idea within the business partners, and long-time friends Kawsar Ahmed and Kamrul Hasan Shayok.
All of them agreed to give the idea a try.
To make the place more attractive, they decided to add a stationery corner and a miniplex along with the café.
With a vision of bringing about a revolutionary change in reading habits, they started to work on a book café in 2008 and inaugurated it in 2010.
They opened three outlets at Uttara, Dhanmondi and Shantinagar in Dhaka.
The library also had books published by Panjeree Publications Limited.
The founders wanted to attract readers from all ages and they also introduced age appropriate books for children.
The stock included original books from Penguin and Oxford, and many other world reputed publishers. They also shelved books from national publishers like Prothoma, Anyaprokash, Tamrolipi and UPL.
The café gave customers the opportunity to leaf through books while enjoying coffee or snacks.
Initially, students from different schools in the areas would come in groups to enjoy shows at the miniplex and spend time with books in the café.
The book shop used to hold small events on the birth and death anniversary of Tagore and Nazrul, Pahela Baishakh, Victory day, Father's Day, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day etc.
Their Halloween celebration became so popular that they still get requests for it.
Despite such popularity, gradually the café and the theatre started incurring losses.
For the theatre, they kept the ticket prices within an affordable range so that students could afford it.
But they had to run shows free of cost on different occasions.
Sometimes students and their parents requested discounts on books, which were hard to refuse.
"After a while the café totally lost its appeal and the theatre failed to bring any profit," said COO of PBS, Md Mahfuzur Rahman Khan.
They started to run both on subsidy.
Finally, they were forced to close down both the projects in 2018.
"We had to halt the plan of opening 100 shops countrywide because new stores meant added losses to our list. It was a moment of extreme grief for all of us," he said.
However, they mustered the courage to start focusing on the library.
They expanded their collection by adding books on history, arts, design, cooking, travel, and many more including encyclopaedias and sports magazines.
They contacted different schools and started supplying books to the school libraries.
The tradition of hosting book unveiling ceremonies continued in the same spirit.
They focused on the academic section of the store as well.
"Students from the primary level and secondary are more enthusiastic about buying books, compared to higher secondary level students. The latter group depend on sharing and photocopying more. So, we introduced a copy book section to attract customers like them", said Mahfuzur.
Eventually they started to recover the losses. Their readership was also growing, but then the pandemic hit.
Mahfuzur, from his years of experience, feels that the overall reading habit has reduced and it is continuing every year.
"To promote the reading habit, we used to arrange book fairs in schools. It earned us a good share of income. We lost that market due to the pandemic and the demand for academic books has also decreased as educational institutes are closed," he said.
It was a great shock for everyone. They were forced to close down the Uttara branch.
They were looking for new ways to survive when the idea of introducing an online platform came to them.
"We did not know there were so many customers online. They order all sorts of books online. We try to deliver to them within the day, if the order is from Dhaka, otherwise it takes three weeks maximum," said Mahfuzur.
Since they introduced the system of online orders, they have observed an increase in non-academic book sales.
In case of out of stock books, they import them for their customers.
When things were normal, they used to personally contact the few vintage book collectors still around, whenever a new lot arrived.
The online platform has saved them the trouble of regularly pursuing loyal customers.
Apart from educational libraries, they have now become formally affiliated with corporate houses to adorn their library.
The time is difficult and they are presented with multiple challenges, but they still dream of re-establishing the book café.
"It is never too late. A time will come when we will re-open the book café and will become one of the top chain book shops in the country," said a determined Mahfuzur.