By Friday afternoon all that remained of the Kathmandu landmark Pilgrims Book House was a scorched brick and cement shell with charred and sodden books covering the floor.
Pilgrims was one of the world’s great bookstores and probably the best in Asia. Specialists in Himalayan and South Asian books, they also carried a huge general selection and over 50,000 antiquarian titles and out-of-print works. Rooms of books alternated with handicrafts and antiques, and the shop had a vegetarian restaurant in a tree-shaded garden.
The blaze started in a restaurant in the same building, Faces Lounge, about 9:30 pm Thursday. First reports say that a small fire spread quickly when bottled gas cylinders in the kitchen exploded one by one. Fire engines arrived only after 20-30 minutes due to the narrow and congested streets of the tourist district where the bookstore was located.
By then little could be done, though seven brigades eventually responded and hundreds of firefighters, police and army personnel battled the blaze for more than 12 hours. No fatalities have been reported, but two firefighters and a policeman were injured. The bookstore appears to be a total loss, and adjacent properties were damaged. Electricity remained off throughout the neighborhood late Friday.
From a small shop 30 years ago, Ramanand Tiwari grew Pilgrims into an institution, expanding in Kathmandu, opening bookstores in Delhi and Varanasi, creating a publishing house, and starting a non-profit foundation to collect and preserve rare Asian manuscripts. One of his daughters was managing the business at the time of the fire.
Tiwari named his first bookstall Pilgrims because of his interest in spiritual books, and, he said, because “we are all pilgrims.” The family’s patience will be tested now: The bookstore was not insured, and media reports are estimating the loss at more than two million dollars.
But the fire and faith in Tiwari’s heart shows clearly in the bookstore’s online flyer (PDF). What would be an ordinary marketing tool for most bookstores is instead an eclectic reflection of a remarkable man.
There may still be Pilgrims progress ahead.