As you stroll through the old town, its landscape keeps changing every few blocks. If on one street you come across a string of eyewear stores, you find bicycles being sold in small shops dotted along both sides of the street, when you walk down another.
The area is a veritable treasure trove.
Upon entering old Dhaka's Islampur road - the entrance adjacent to Dhaka Collegiate School - your eyes will glimmer with shades of vibrant colours on display. You can listen to clocks ticking as you come across all sorts of timekeepers at Islampur's watch market.
Varieties of wall clocks on display, in shops located at the entrance of each establishment, strike 12 at the same time. Among many new Chinese brands that have flooded the market, renowned names like Citizen, Seiko, and Bangladesh's Citisun, on display at storefronts, still have a firm hold over the watch and clock market.
The shops at the front mostly cater to retail customers while the ones at the back, inside the market, mainly focus on wholesale. As space is a rare commodity in the country's bustling trade hub, shops make full use of the area available - be it wholesale or retail - every inch of a shop is covered with watches.
You can find wrist watches that cost as low as Tk50 and go as high as Tk5,00,000. Wall clocks are sold wholesale at a minimum price of Tk100. A few shops cater to the demand for exotic watches as well.
There are around 700-800 watch and clock traders spread across 10 markets in Patuatuli, according to the Bangladesh Watch Merchant Association (BWMA).
"At present, there are 1,200 members in our association out of which, around 250-300 are importers. Around 7,000-8,000 people, including shop owners, traders, importers, workers, etc, are associated with the watch and clock trade in Patuatuli," said Haji Mohammad Asaduzzaman Ripon, BWMA's President.
There was a time when watches were considered complementary and somewhat mandatory accessories to complete one's attire, but, over time, technology has swept aside its significance.
Be that as it may, watches and clocks are yet to cease to exist in Bangladesh; more than Tk80 crore worth of watches, clocks and accessories are being imported every year since FY 2018-19, according to foreign trade reports published by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
"There was a time when wristwatches of brands like Casio, Seiko, and Titan were very popular in our market. Now, though the demand for analog watches has fallen, digital watches are very high in demand," said Mohammed Enayet Hossain, proprietor of Messrs Oishi Watch Company, located in Haju Nur Market on Islampur road.
Enayet has been trading watches in Patuatuli for the past 39 years. He was first introduced to the watch business by his late brother-in-law soon after passing his SSC exams in 1982.
"I remember those days when I used to rush to the shop after college every day. This went on for a couple of years until I graduated in Chemistry from Jagannath University," said Enayet.
He mostly sells wristwatches of various brands that cater to customers of all demographics. "Starting from Tk60 to Tk20,000, I sell all sorts of wrist watches. Now that there are numerous Chinese watch manufacturers, we can import products at reasonable prices and offer the most affordable rates to our customers," said Enayet.
Trade reports published by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics state that watches, clocks and accessories worth Tk409.35 crore have been imported to Bangladesh from July 2017 till June 2021. China is the biggest exporter for Bangladesh followed by India and Japan.
"The current situation of our business is bad; many traders are close to bankruptcy. We have products to sell but there is no one to buy. Our business was shut down for eight months, which forced midsize and small businesses, and their workers, onto the streets," said BWMA's president Ripon.
"The majority of Bangladeshis cannot afford to purchase expensive watches. Our business thrives on watches being sold within the price range of Tk200–400. Students are one of our primary customer groups. Since schools had been shut down for almost 18 months, the demand for watches fell drastically," added S M Mustafizur Rahman, one of the directors of BWMA.
Mustafizur believes that our dependence on smartphones had already impacted the watch business to a great extent and the Covid-19 pandemic simply added insult to injury.
According to BWMA, since the influx of the Covid-19 pandemic, many traders have left business while many are on the verge of bankruptcy.
"Around 40 traders fled overnight leaving behind huge debts in the market. Now, we are auctioning their stock to repay the dues left behind," stressed Ripon.
A handful of businesses and importers may have been immune from the impact of Covid-19, however, it put around 7,000-8,000 people affiliated with watch businesses and their families through great distress.
Taposh Sarker, proprietor of Patuatuli's Golden Watch, has been selling watch accessories, mainly batteries and watch belts, and machines related to watches and clocks, over the past decade.
He said, "On a regular day, I can sell 150,000 pieces of batteries. On the down-low, I sell around 50,000 - 60,000 batteries every day. But, since the pandemic, there have been days when I could not even sell products worth a single penny but I have to pay our expenses."
Taposh is a second generation watch trader and he believes the watch market will recover over time and he will keep trading the way he has been over the past decade.
BWMA president Ripon however thinks the watch and clock market is far from recovering. He said, "Watches are fashionable items and due to the economic impact of Covid-19, people do not intend to purchase fashionable items like they once did."
"We were supposed to receive financial aid from the government's Covid-19 fund but we did not. The high ballers in the watch industry are doing well but small businesses and workers are going through a very tough time," added Ripon.