Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

In praise of the mystique of the secondhand bookstore

We should support booksellers who offer us an escape from the drumbeat of urban life

Ahmed Abdel Fattah runs a secondhand bookstall in Soor El Azbakeya, but he will not attend the Cairo International Book Fair this year. Courtesy Hamada Elrasam
Ahmed Abdel Fattah runs a secondhand bookstall in Soor El Azbakeya, but he will not attend the Cairo International Book Fair this year. Courtesy Hamada Elrasam

There is an old adage, that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads”. It speaks to the rich tradition of literature in the Arab world. Today that legacy lives on in the literary festivals, bookshops and fairs that dot the region’s cities, from the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this March to Sharjah and Cairo international book fairs.

The industry has endured a difficult few years, as e-books force publishers to question their business models and adapt to a changing world. Unlike book fairs in other regions, which are typically commercial enterprises, literary events in the Middle East are as much about fostering a love of reading and providing a platform for Arabic authors as they are about selling. This year Sharjah has been awarded Unesco’s World Book Capital status, rewarding the emirate for its ambitious plan to promote and foster reading. It is encouraging that in our digital world, the allure of the printed word still endures in the UAE and beyond.

Few things compare to the joy of holding in one’s hand a book and that powerful, ethereal connection between author and unseen reader. Secondhand books provide an opportunity to pass on that pleasure especially to those who may not be able to afford a library of new books. But in the race to modernise, some of that euphoria risks being lost.

The Cairo International Book Fair has this year relocated to a new, stylish setting in the upmarket satellite suburb of Tagamoa El Khamis. With 748 publishers filling 45,000 square metres, it will remain a fixture on the region’s literary calendar but threatens to leave behind Cairo’s much-loved tranche of more than 100 secondhand booksellers, who for years have been selling their wares in the century-old Soor El Azbayeka book market. They have been priced out of the new venue or are not invited at all. The absence of their rare volumes, cheap paperbacks and surprising finds will be felt deeply, not just by Egypt’s bibliophiles but by anyone who has ever experienced the pleasure of browsing cavernous bookstores piled high with antique finds.

Thrift Distribution and Books Trading in Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Thrift Distribution and Books Trading in Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

In the UAE, secondhand bookshops such as Abu Dhabi’s Thrift Distribution and Books Trading and House of Prose in Dubai offer an opportunity like no other to dawdle among the stacks and escape the drumbeat of urban life. It is not simply books that line their shelves but the broad, diverse and messy expanse of humanity itself.

However, these places are rare to find. Much like Cairo’s secondhand booksellers, we must patronise and support them, because if they disappear, so too will the huge possibilities of discovery among their musty tomes.

Updated: January 31, 2019 03:51 PM

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