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Oasis Magazine Articles

Books, Coffee, and Quiet Havens

By Trevor Naylor

Books and history have a long relationship; for good or bad. Books invite opinion; for good or bad. Books excite; for good or bad. Books dictate; for good or bad. Books educate sometimes, or lie. With that sort of storied background, it is hardly surprising that bookshops have always been important to those who visit them, work in them, own them, or are forced to close them down.

Bookshops are unique in what they do. They act as a middleman - connecting authors, publishers, and readers via a shared space.  Long, long before the internet and way before the computer booksellers knew as much about the market, bookshops served us all the information that IT does today, managing and offering knowledge with the happy addition of a personality and smiling face.

Being a bookshop owner is a tricky path to follow in our modern time due to the enormous amount of competition for customer’s time, attention, and money. The ease of reading on electronic devices also presents competition. It is a difficult enough for a business to be built and capture customer loyalty, whether you’re in London, New York or any other western publishing capital. As you read this, imagine the obstacles which had been overcome for the next book you buy in Cairo to have landed in your hands. The bookshop of today has to contend with pressure from all sides to make a sale and pay the rent.

In Egypt we have examples of old and new thinking where it comes to bookshops. We also have the old family business model and the newer, more modern stores directed at the new generation of reader. We have stores in the very centre of the city and in suburban malls on the outskirts of town. Many remain driven by a wish to sell a product that actually matters to the person who buys or receives it. All these stores are finding life hard in the current business environment, but like bookshops around the world, they stay afloat during the bad times in order to prosper during the good. My own working life has taken me to working with bookshops in over 90 countries and this sense of survive and thrive is a unique part of the bookseller mentality. That said, Cairo has to have the oldest and best history of bookshops I know.

Nowadays bookshops around the world have to offer coffee and a place to sit in order to compete. When I first came to Cairo, you always got a coffee in every store, so this was no surprise. The idea is if a customer picks up a book and starts to read it while sipping a coffee, they will probably buy it to continue reading it at home. At a higher level of thinking, booksellers do have a mission to disseminate information and learning through selling books. It is children’s books which lead the way currently, as a new generation of Cairene parents seek to educate through reading at home. It is a great way to have fun with your kids, and parents (who rarely admit it) learn a lot too.

When Diwan, inspired by Nadia and Hind Wassef, opened in Zamalek some years ago, it shook up bookselling in Egypt with its modern and open routes to customer service and its will to bring new things to readers in Cairo. For many well-traveled book lovers, Diwan’s arrival heralded the West arriving in town, or at least in Zamalek. Between Diwan in Zamalek and the AUC Bookstore in Tahrir, there was finally a wide selection of contemporary and modern books for the local reader to enjoy, as well as the burgeoning expat community who had a thirst for fresh reading material.

Both now continue to do the job of importing titles and supporting local authors, and luckily have increased the number of their branches and reach. I believe both stores still believe in the role of bookstores as places which connect ideas and cultures, extend our horizons, and help the reader see the local situation in this region from a wider perspective. Books bring people together in surprising ways, and allow them to find common ground and forge friendships through shared interest.

Working in a bookshop is a delight, as well as very hard work. Other chain bookshops like Dar el Shorouk and Alef have entered the shopping mall market, as retail space grows and grows. At book fairs and in conversation, I hear much said about the new ways to market and promote books, reading, and customer engagement in shops. All the ideas are good ones, and some of them do promote sales and engage younger audiences. This gives me hope that bookselling will continue and weather the storm.

Cairo has been the epicenter of books and publishing in this region for centuries. That being said, in reality, all new ideas for the book trade are attempts to build on what was done long ago, and the original booksellers of Cairo deserve great distinction for the rather wonderful businesses they built and the tremendous work they poured into this culture and passion.

Bookselling in previous era was always synonymous with people. Individuals who started or continued a family business, with both the belief that what they did was valuable and valued work, which also turned a profit and gave them a lifestyle full of interest and fun. When I decided to write this article, I had a walk around and visited some old friends. Generational change takes place still, most famously at the Anglo Egyptian Bookshop, where Fady and Karim Greiss took over the business. I had worked with their father and their grandfather before that. At Al –Ahram, we have Yasser Farahat, another son following in famous footsteps from his father Ezzeldin. Lehnert and Landrock continue to survive despite a recent move from their famous Sherif Street site. They are now opposite Readers Corner, a former bookstore turned framing shop run by the Mikaelian brothers for many years now. In Maadi, a settled group of shops can be found, such as Magdy Redwan at Adams Bookshop. His mantra is a strong desire to educate through reading. Volume One Bookstore offers a wider mix of books, gifts, and stationery.

There are many more, all have suffered tough economic times in a post-2011 world and struggling trade. But survival is a dominant theme even in books themselves, and today, despite all competition, the Cairo book scene remains one of vibrancy. We should be grateful that these “dealers in words” stand strong and remain counted; carrying on the major role they play in the fabric of Egypt’s cultural heritage. 

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