x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

How a do-it-yourself librarian brought a city to book

An avid reader, Aisha Lakdawala spent her own money setting up Abu Dhabi's first private library after arriving here 21 years ago.

"I have so many books now, they are literally falling off the shelves," says Aisha Lakdawala, founder of Al Shaheen library and book club.
"I have so many books now, they are literally falling off the shelves," says Aisha Lakdawala, founder of Al Shaheen library and book club.

ABU DHABI // The capital's first private library started for a simple reason: Aisha Lakdawala could not find anything to read. "When I first came here 21 years ago, I loved books," said Mrs Lakdawala, 39.

"But I couldn't find what I wanted anywhere. When I did find things in the bookshop, they were very expensive. And once I'd read them, that was that. "I had a few friends, but their choice of reading material was very different to mine. They preferred Mills and Boons, which I'm not into," she said, referring to the British publishers of romance novels. Her brother would cart novels over from India when he visited, and she would get her children to smuggle books home from school, to be returned once she had sated her literary appetite.

Then one day, her brother arrived on a visit from India. "My brother came over, and he had brought me some books. I was grumbling about the lack of books here. He asked why I didn't start my own library." His suggestion came as an inspiration, and the rest was to make Abu Dhabi literary history. Mrs Lakdawala found a store and applied to the Government for a licence to run a private library. It had never been done before. Mrs Lakdawala was forced to negotiate the various rungs of bureaucratic officialdom, explaining her intentions to numerous levels of administrative staff before finding someone who could help.

"I finally spoke to an Indian man who understood me. He said, 'I suggest you don't do this, sister. This business is not profitable. Why don't you start a salon, because then you will make money?' "I told him it wasn't the money I was looking for." She found herself dragging her entire private collection, along with her brother's donations to the store, and in 2002, the Al Shaheen library was born.

It had 400 books and four members of staff: Mrs Lakdawala, her husband and her two sons. Slowly the library began to grow, but the low price of membership - 50 fils for a book and Dh150 for a year's membership - meant that she had to put a lot of her own money into the project. Members donated second-hand books, and any duplicates were sold for cash that was then ploughed back into the business to buy more stock.

There are now more than 12,000 books in her collection and 400 members who read them. Last year, she moved to a bigger shop to accommodate her large stock, and hired her first non-family member of staff. "It was too cramped. The books were literally falling on our members," she said. At the new library on Hamdan Street, the bookshelves are mounted on rollers so the readers can access the stacks and stacks of books more easily. Her goal is to ensure that none of her members go through what she had to endure when she arrived - a lack of good reading material.

"Whenever a member requests a book, I make a note of it. Otherwise it will be the same story. They need new books to keep themselves in the habit of reading." It is a habit Mrs Lakdawala is finding difficult to keep up these days. She still works full-time as a technical co-ordinator while caring for her husband and children. "I have so many books now, and I don't have time to read. I only manage one page at night before bed."

And it is not only her career and the library that keep Mrs Lakdawala busy. She also volunteers at the Indian Ladies Association (ILA). "She does a lot in the community," said Faeza Banatwala, 24, who works in customer service. "She won an award last year, and is the most hard-working lady at the ILA. Although she is known for her friendliness, Aisha is developing another reputation - as a workaholic."

Her husband, Mohammed, 46, agrees: "I feel like she works too much, but she likes working." Although the library is her baby, he helps out a lot, both manning the shop at times, and by donating funds from the family purse to keep it up and running. "The idea was crazy, but it was also a good idea," he said. "She always loved reading, which is why she wanted to open it." The library is her pride and joy, and one day she hopes to expand further, with space for a separate children's reading area and a book club for adults. In addition to being the proprietor of Abu Dhabi's first private library, she also has the dubious distinction of possessing the country's largest private collection of Mills and Boon novels, with more than 4,000 of the titles.

"It's what my members want," she said with resignation. "But I still don't go in for Mills and Boons myself." @Email:amcmeans@thenational.ae For more in this series, visit www.thenational.ae/people