TEHRAN (Reuters Life!) - As Pejman Soltani stacked books of Persian literature in his Tehran shop, he was far from hopeful that they would be flying off the shelves any time soon.
Tough financial times have pushed Iranians to tighten their belts and increasingly consider books a luxury. Combined with stricter government controls on publishing, booksellers like Soltani are concerned for the future.
"Customers often ask if there is a discount on book prices. I ask you, do you get a discount on a sandwich?" Soltani said in an interview with Reuters in the chic two-storey Vistar bookshop in downtown Tehran.
The head of Sales, another bookstore which, like Vistar, is also a publishing house, made the news recently when he said he was considering closing down his famous shop.
Mohammad Ali Jafarieh told the semi-official ILNA news agency in January, that more than 40 Tehran bookshops had already closed.
Iranians are feeling the pinch from radical cuts in state subsidies, a plan President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called "the biggest economic plan in the past 50 years."
The cuts in long-standing subsidies on essentials like fuel and food do not directly affect books, but cuts to some $100 billion of annual subsidies which have kept prices artificially low for decades, is having a knock-on effect on demand for books, store owners and customers say.
Crucially, while the subsidy cuts are pushing up prices of gasoline, food and utility bills, the price of books cannot rise with inflation at least until the next print run.
"When the time comes for the substantial price rises I think people will omit books from the shopping basket," Soltani said.
Enthusiastically browsing Vistar's literature shelves, 23-year-old philosophy student Babak Rahimi said he was "passionate about books."
"But considering my pocket money, which has to cover other expenses ... I have to be cautious about the budget that I dedicate to books."
Besides the subsidy cuts, Iran is also coping with international sanctions, aimed at squeezing its economy to force the government to curb a nuclear program which the United States and its allies say may be aimed at making atomic weapons.
Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, denies the charge and says it needs nuclear energy to allow it to export more of its abundant fossil fuels.
The sanctions have pushed away many foreign companies from investing in much-needed upgrades in the energy sector and made it more difficult for Iran to access international banking.
Iran's government denies the sanctions have greatly impacted the economy and Culture Minister Mohammad Hosseini also dismissed complaints from the book industry about economic hardship and heavy-handed strictures hurting business.
"Cultural works are not like other businesses from which you can expect to have a high income," said the minister," Hosseini was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency on January 15.
Books have a special place in Iran, whose city bookshops range from family-owned holes in the wall to gleaming modern chains that would not look out of place in New York or London.
Through the centuries, Iranians have gathered in tea houses to listen to recitals of the Shahnameh -- an epic poem written around 1,000 A.D. by Ferdowsi. He dedicated most of his life to the masterpiece and is credited with playing a significant role in the survival of the Persian, or Farsi, language.
An Iranian proverb says the works of Hafez -- the 14th century poet who inspired Germany's Goethe -- can be found in the homes of all Iranians.
As well the economic straits, the book industry says it also faces tighter restrictions from the Islamic Republic's government, which has dictated what Iranians are permitted to read since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
Writers and publishers must submit their books to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance which makes sure books, films and television shows comply with society's moral codes.
Some publishers and writers say the supervision has become stricter after Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, but the ministry rejects the criticism and says its own figures show the production of books has increased rather than declined.
According to its statistics, the number of books published each year has increased to 12,006 in the Iranian year ending March 20, 2010 from 9,196 in 2004, the final year former President Mohammad Khatami's government.
The minister in charge rubbished the idea that the government's vetting procedure was an economic risk.
"It is possible that a book gets stuck in the ministry because it has some problems and needs corrections, but this reasoning that one book affects the whole bookshop (causing it to close) is baseless," ISNA quoted Hosseini as saying.
The works of foreign authors -- including Paulo Coelho and Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- have also fallen afoul of the authorities in Iran.
Coelho's publisher and translator, Arash Hejazi, angered authorities by taking part in anti-government protests after Ahmadinejad's re-election in June 2009. Some religious figures have also accused Coelho's books, which examine spirituality, of taking a superficial view of religion.
"Paulo Coelho is an archetype of a cultural bandit who uses spiritual jargon to oppress spirituality, therefore we should not allow his works to be published," cleric Hamidreza Mazaheri Sayyf, the head of the Spiritual Health Institute, an Iranian think-tank which examines religious issues, told the semi-official Fars news agency on February 4.
Hosseini said no such ban has been applied.
Marquez's "Memories of My Melancholy Whores," was banned by the government despite a translation which changed the word "whores" into "sweethearts."
Despite the challenges of running a book business, Soltani said he would stick at it for now, even though he is tempted to sell up and live off the interest from the proceeds which he says would be much higher than the profits he is making now.
"The sale (of books) here is the outcome of years of work and perseverance," said Soltani. "It is also the result of our passion for culture, although this passion sometimes borders on stupidity."