Hundreds of furniture shops are lined up along both sides of the approximately half a kilometre long Sheri Para road – around 180 kilometres north of capital city Dhaka. The road ends at an intersection, from where another under-construction road heading east houses sawmills and assembly units.
The tin-shed showrooms looked disorganised compared to a branded outlet in Dhaka. However, the carved headboards, bundled with footboards and side rails of bedsteads, appear glossy under the low wattage LED bulbs dangling from the tin-shed ceilings.
The air is filled with a mixed odour of mineral spirits and raw wood.
This is the famous furniture market of Sherpur, crowded more by merchandisers than retail buyers. It is a wholesale market which emerged after the devastating 1988 floods.
"Before the flood, local carpenters used to work individually and were scattered. After the devastating flood, they banded together for their own survival," says Jiban Sutra Dhar, a 53-year-old master carpenter.
Jiban was putting varnish on furniture at Karim Furniture Mart. To polish the wood, he mixed resin and saffron powder with mineral spirit or thinner. Over the last three decades, his daily income has grown four folds.
"Coincidentally, the first batch of trees planted as a part of social forestry were also ready for logging around the same time," he says.
There are nearly 200 stores at the Sheri Para furniture market and around 20,000 people are directly or indirectly dependent on the market for their livelihood. These include not only some of the most skilled carpenters in the country, but also hundreds of local youth, many of them in different stages of their education, who have become an integral part of the industry.
"Every weekday, paikars (merchandisers) from around Bangladesh come here and go back with trucks filled with furniture. You can find our products in rural markets across Mymensingh, Sylhet, Dhaka and Chattogram regions," said Azad Ali – the owner of Shakil Furniture, among the pioneers in the Sheri Para-based furniture business.
Although he refused to put a number on the size of the market, Azad said an enterprise has to sell products worth at least Tk50,000 a week for survival.
The biggest attraction of the market is that it offers furniture at cheap prices. You can find bedsteads, dressing tables, showcases, dining tables and other household furniture here. But bedsteads of a regular 6×7 feet size is the flagship product priced between Tk5,000 to Tk12,000. Unvarnished products are among the cheapest.
What allows furniture business to thrive in this area is the easy availability of acacia - local and Belgium variety - from social forestry land around Sherpur, Mymensingh and Tangail districts.
"Acacia is generally resistant to woodworms," said Abdur Rahim, manager at Karim Furniture Mart. Rahim's carpenter father Ameer Hossain opened the furniture shop 15 years back.
Sheri Para-based traders sell only ready-made furniture. If a buyer wants the best quality and brand bedsteads made of costly wood like teak, an order needs to be placed in advance. And that raises the final price of a bedstead to around Tk50,000.
A livelihood hub
The furniture hub has expanded to villages Purba Sheri, Boyra, Paranpur, Sheri Para, Kusumhati, Kasba and Ashtamitala. Locals fondly call them furniture villages.
Jakaria, a 48-year-old trader, started carpentry in the late 1980s at Purba Sheri village. He apprenticed under local master carpenter Bishwanath Sutra Dhar and eventually moved to Dhaka to work for Otobi. In 2015, he returned to his village with Tk2 lakh in savings.
With a 20-member workforce, Jakaria sells around 10-12 bedsteads a week.
At his tin-shed factory, a pool of young carpenters were working tirelessly. Some were carving timber with chisels while some were sanding the unfinished woodwork with abrasive sandpaper. Using wood planers, some workers outside the factory were giving shape to the timber. The timber had been sliced at a nearby sawmill.
A very energetic Md Shamim introduced himself as a fitting carpentry technician.
"I can fit [assemble] three bedsteads in a day. If there is a [heavier] workload, sometimes I fit five beds."
The 22-year old carpenter used to work in Dhaka just three years back. Over there, his monthly income did not exceed Tk12,000. "Now I can earn the same amount of money in a week," Shamim said.
Niranjan Sutra Dhar works as a designer at another factory.
He follows catalogues of headboard designs brought from Dhaka and creates his own drawings inspired by them. He then places the cardboard drawing, with floral and leafy motifs, on a headboard, and outlines the design with a marker. He then carves the wood with the chisels of different sizes.
Niranjan joined the carpentry profession after completing his higher secondary studies. Initially, he was a part-timer. As he gained skills, particularly in design, he chose to come fully on board.
"This furniture market offers jobs round the year. Local youth often earn a handsome amount," Niranjan said. Eighth-grader Swapan was working there as support staff for Tk250 a day.
At a nearby factory, there was Proloy Chandra Biswas – a computer science student at Sherpur Polytechnic Institute. He did not have classes that day.
"One and a half years ago I joined this profession as a novice. Now, I earn around Tk5,000-8,000 monthly," Proloy said, asking that we not take his and the other teenage colleagues' photos. "Many of our parents don't have an idea about our work. We don't want them to know either," Niranjan said.
We asked Proloy why he does carpentry despite being a computer science student?
He said craftsmanship of the local carpenters had ignited a new spirit among youngsters like him to get involved in this line of work.``If you can become a skilled craftsman, you can earn money. That is the popular idea among many local youngsters," he said.
What is so special about Sheri craftsmanship?
A young carpentry technician Shamim replied, "We are more confident and smarter than others. We can fit any timber whether it is thin or thick. Often we nail thin timber with spikes that carpenters from other regions don't dare to do.
"Most importantly, we understand the characteristics of wood grains, particularly of acacia." According to the young carpenter, this is crucial to understand the wood grains to be the best in this profession.
Dark clouds over Sheri Para furniture market
Despite a booming market, the owner of Shakil Furniture, Azad Ali looked pale when he shared his concern about the future of his business.
The former carpenter, now furniture trader, said businesses now cannot source acacia timbers at a fair price like they did only two decades ago.
"A mini-truck full of logs would cost Tk12,000, including transport fare and tolls. Now we have to pay Tk50,000 for the same amount of logs. Why? Because of extortion," Azad complained.
There are three routes the acacia logs come through: Madbhurpur (Tangail)-Sherpur, Nalitabari-Sherpur and Jhinaigati-Sherpur. "At every route, we have to pay tolls," Azad, a local Awami League organiser, said, without naming anyone.
Md Jewel Miah, owner of Nirjharna Furniture, said that businesses of the Sheri Para several times had informed the local administration and law enforcement officials about the difficulties, to no avail.
What does your association do? "There is an association of furniture traders. I am one of its advisors. But the association is not effective. There are divisions among the association members," Azad replied. He also said that some traders have been planning to leave the business as they are struggling to pay loan instalments, despite satisfactory returns.