Imagine being surrounded by hundreds of books in the middle of a vast lake and having access to a reading-room café with stunning views of the Shankaracharya Hill and Hari Parbat, which overlook the city of Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir.

Gulshan Books—the only book store on the city’s famous Dal Lake—should be on the go-to list of every tourist when visiting the valley. For book lovers, it would be sacrilege to give it a pass. Just a few kilometres from the city centre, situated on Nehru Park Island, this unique bookshop with a reading room-cum-café is a 2-minute boat ride from the lakeside Boulevard Road. Since it opened in May 2016, it has attracted thousands of visitors, offering them a unique retail experience. The Limca Book Of Records has included it in its 2018 edition as the “only bookshop-library on a lake" in India. The entry adds that the owner of the store, 46-year-old Sheikh Ajaz Ahmad, “willingly offers free shikara rides to everyone keen to read books on Kashmir and its literature".

Jointly run by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation (JKTDC) and Gulshan Books Kashmir, one of the oldest bookshops and publishing houses in the valley, it’s on the second floor of the JKTDC building on the lake. With over 80,000 books in stock, it offers a plethora of choice. Apart from its intricately designed wooden bookshelves, stacked with hundreds of titles on Kashmir’s history, art, culture and religion, the store showcases a rare collection of photographs from the Dogra period (1846-1948).

The owner, Sheikh Ajaz Ahmed. Photo: PTI
The owner, Sheikh Ajaz Ahmed. Photo: PTI

Gulshan Books Kashmir, the parent company, owns the publishing house and five bookshops in the state, including three bookshops in Srinagar—a two-storey book store on Residency Road in the city centre, the one on Dal Lake, and a smaller book store at the Srinagar International Airport.

“We have more than 1,000 titles, especially on Kashmir’s history, culture and politics, which are for reading and reference alone, apart from a fair number of contemporary fiction and non-fiction," says Ahmad.

Some of the rare titles in Gulshan’s stock include limited editions of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini by M.A. Stein; Kashir: Being A History Of Kashmir From The Earliest Times To Our Own by G.M.D. Sufi; and Lalla Vakyani Or The Wise Sayings Of Lal Ded—A Mystic Poetess Of Ancient Kashmir by George Grierson. A special glimpse of Kashmir from the 1880s to the present comes from A History Of Kashmir—Political-Social-Cultural: From Times To Present Day by P.N.K. Bamzai; A History Of Budshah In Kashmir (Tarikh-e-Budshahi) by M.D. Fouq; Gulabnama: A History Of Maharaja Gulab Singh Of Jammu & Kashmir by Diwan Kripa Ram; Sufism In Kashmir by Abdul Qayoom Rafiqi; and copies of Aatish-e-Chinar (The Blazing Chinar), the autobiography of Jammu and Kashmir’s former prime minister, the late Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.

It was difficult for Ahmad to stay in the books business after the devastating flood in September 2014 submerged their main shop on Residency Road, damaging hundreds of titles. It took months for Gulshan Books to reopen—and this time, they added another shop, on the lake.

“It was my dream to open a unique bookshop in Kashmir. I approached the former chief minister, the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, with the idea of having one on Dal Lake and eventually we were given the go-ahead," says Ahmad. “I’m happy we are being recognized for successfully running the shop at a time when more people are reading on screens and the publishing industry is taking a beating," he adds.

Readers at the book-store café. Photo: PTI
Readers at the book-store café. Photo: PTI

Going beyond making the venture profitable, the idea was to inculcate the habit of reading among the youth. On an average, Ahmad says, 1,000-1,200 books are sold and between 6,000-7,000 people visit the Dal Lake book store every month.

“We are seeing increased footfall of young people, students, researchers and locals from all age groups. Not only are they visiting the store to browse, they are spending time in the reading room, which is encouraging," says Ahmad.

The family has been in the business for almost half a century—his grandfather, Sheikh Muhammad Usman, first opened a bookshop on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. “I am the fifth generation in our family who is involved in running the book stores. I have been taking the trade of my forefathers ahead," Ahmad says. “There might have been something on their mind why they chose the book business over others, but unfortunately neither my father nor I ever got a chance to ask them about it. I must thank Allah for the satisfaction that this business has given me though."

We are seeing increased footfall of young people, students, researchers and locals from all age groups. Not only are they visiting the store to browse, they are spending time in the reading room, which is encouraging.- Sheikh Ajaz Ahmad

The visitors’ book in the shop is filled with endorsements—from former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad to casual tourists. One of the most glowing endorsements comes from former BBC journalist Andrew Whitehead, an expert on Kashmir and author of A Mission In Kashmir (2007). After visiting Gulshan Books last year, he noted on his website that it is “one of the best bookshops not simply in Kashmir (no, there’s not a lot of competition) but in South Asia".