A novel idea
Sipping coffee and flipping through a paperback, Dina Ezzat
takes note of the new book markets in Cairo and whether they can encourage the public to once again read
Click to view caption|
Al-Diwan, Al-Balad and Madboulie offer varied titles and alternative atmospheres to potential readers - but are they really attracting enough customers?
The city is well dotted with signs declaring the "Reading for All campaign". State-run TV and radio stations are prompting the old and young to get into the habit of reading. And the government is producing millions of copies of a wide range of titles at fairly decent prices. The managers of the public libraries affiliated to the campaign report what they qualify as considerable attention to the campaign, especially in Cairo and Alexandria.
However, judging by the volume of dust covering the bookshelves of most bookstores in many quarters of Cairo and by the fact that some of the private bookstores have changed a decades-long business into stationary outlets, it does not seem that the book market in Egypt is on the rise.
"Why did we change? Obviously because we were almost bankrupt," commented a sales assistant at Al-A'ila, a small Heliopolis bookstore that turned into a stationary shop. "Nobody wanted to buy books anymore. We changed close to a decade ago. Now we are selling stationary and souvenirs that people like to buy. We still have some colouring books for children." What used to be the typical outlet for books for children and adults, especially during the summer holidays in the late 1960s up until the early 1980s, is no longer frequented by students and parents searching for stationary for the academic year nor by young men and women who seek a nice wrapping for their gifts.
Al-A'ila is far from being a unique example. In Heliopolis alone at least three bookstores have shifted business to the stationary/souvenirs market. The bookshelves of Palace Book Store that used to be filled with English and French classics and the latest editions of Mills and Boon now display no more than cheap replicas of Pharaonic monuments and a few guides to Cairo and other major Egyptian cities. Some other bookstores still keep a few shelves for books while dedicating the vast majority of their business space to imported and expensive collections of gift cards, wrapping paper, mugs and souvenirs.
The hard times are particularly felt at many government-run book stores where assistants complain, or simply report, a drop in activities save perhaps for a list of titles of inexpensive books produced under the umbrella of the Family Library, a sister project of the "Reading For All Campaign". The humble, if not outright, dismaying show of titles displayed at many of these bookstores speaks volumes for the reduced attention that individuals accord to the book today except, as several assistants have noticed, for the religion- related books.
The exception to this lack of interest in reading might be the new style bookstores that offer their visitors books, music CDs and above all a café latte or a cappuccino with a bit of chocolate cake or bottled water.
On 20 July, in the heart of downtown Cairo, the city celebrated the introduction of yet another bookstore that attempts to attract the potential reader by luring him with a nice coffee in fairly pleasant surroundings. Al-Balad is inaugurating a new bookstore, however, it seems to be more of a coffee shop. Indeed it is stationed in the same building as one of Cairo's most popular trendy coffee chains.
On its second day of operation, Al-Balad, according to its chairman of the board, Farid Zahran, seems to be doing well in attracting the clientele it is catering to: the young men and women of the upper middle and upper class.
"Let's be realistic," Zahran said. "Those who can afford reading now are mainly in these socio-economic brackets. I am not at all saying that the rest [who represent the vast majority of Egyptians] are without any access to books but this is the on-going trend."
For Zahran, attracting the young people of these classes is not easy. This manager/ publisher knows very well that reading is not exactly an Egyptian habit -- at least not of the Egyptian society during the past three decades or so. This, he and other publishers say, is the case despite the government's attempt to promote reading.
As such, it was the choice of Zahran and a few others to pursue a new style of promoting books. "What I am trying to do is attract my potential customers by offering them other products that they would normally pursue," Zahran explained. A nice cup of coffee on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, next to several coffee and fast food chains, the campus of the American University in Cairo and the French Lycée Bab Al-Louk, is certainly something that many would pursue. "I have nothing to be ashamed of. We do not necessarily have to think in a box. We can think out of the box," Zahran said.
He said that his mission was not simply to provide an interesting title that the typical dedicated reader would go buy because that reader is getting his book anyway. What Zahran is interested in offering is, "a warm and friendly atmosphere that makes people feel they are sitting in their own living room, having a coffee and flipping through a book that they might or might not wish to buy at the end."
Zahran is also offering his customers what he calls, "the equally important cultural products" -- DVDs, CDs and a limited selection of plastic art. "My mission is to promote culture and not just books. Books are part of the wider cultural harvest that I think I want to present," Zahran said.
During the first day of business, Zahran noticed some young men and women who stepped in Al-Balad just to have their coffee and leave. Others had their coffee and looked at the titles. Very few had their coffee and read or bought books. "But I am confident that of some of those customers who originally came in just to have coffee were tempted to buy books. So by offering coffee I also managed to offer knowledge," he said.
Al-Balad is not the first of its café- bookstore kind. Some seven years ago, it was also Zahran who operated Misr Al-Mahroussa, a similar, albeit smaller, business that was prematurely stopped due to administrative matters that Zahran is not convinced should have defied his original purpose. Five years ago, on 26 July Street in Zamalek, Al-Diwan, a preferred hub for the upper class readers, came into being to a much acclaimed welcome. And a little over a year ago, in New Maadi, Al-Kotob Khan was celebrated as yet another member of the slowly but surely growing family of café-bookstores.
Al-Diwan is already operating a summer outlet in one of the most posh summer resorts on the northern coast. It is planning to open a Heliopolis branch, off Al-Orouba Road, that manager Amal Mahmoud says will be very spacious. And Al-Balad is planning sister outlets. The first, scheduled to open this autumn, will be stationed on 7 Gaziret Al-Ward Street in Al-Mansoura. Then early next year, Zahran is hoping that business will go well enough for him to open two other Al-Balads, one in Heliopolis, the heart of middle class Cairo, and in Alexandria. For Zahran to expand beyond Cairo and Al-Mansoura he needs to make more than the LE60,000 running cost of his Cairo store that will almost double once the Al-Mansoura branch opens in late September.
"I am convinced that I have an audience-in-waiting. I am convinced that these young men and women could and are actually willing to be lured into reading if only they are approached in the right way," Zahran stressed. He added that while some people, "the typical intellectual", may look with disdain at projects like Al-Balad, he is convinced that his café-bookstore is a bridge worth building for youth.
And according to Mahmoud, "it is the relaxing atmosphere, the appealing display of books and the freedom that a visiting customer has to browse without having to buy them or feel unwelcome, that attract the hesitant reader." For the visitors of Al-Diwan who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, going there is not just about buying books to read, although this often turns out to be the case. For them, it is mostly about the experience of, "being with books" that they say they enjoy most. For many a reader, one does not necessarily have to read a book. Sometimes, some said, it is more rewarding to read the blurbs of several books while having a peaceful coffee. This exercise, it is added, cannot be conducted in the usual bookstore where the shelves are super-packed with titles and where there is hardly any space to allow for the customer to spend quality time examining the various titles, not to mention the lack of patience on the part of the attendants, they argued.
"After one year in business the attempt was worth the effort despite the fact that the road attracting enough young people is still very long," said Karam Youssef, the owner-manager of Al-Kotob Khan.
For Youssef, young men and women are still not frequenting her café- bookstore as much as she would like them to. The vast majority of her clientele are men and women in their late thirties and forties. "I guess that this is the generation that was brought up to read. This discipline was never really embraced by the subsequent generations," she said.
Youssef is not only dismayed by the limited trickling of young readers but she is also, and to a great extent, disappointed with the disassociation that she senses these readers have with their own mother tongue: Arabic. Many of the young customers of Al-Kotob Khan prefer to read the classics of Egyptian writers, including Naguib Mahfouz, and the recent works of modern writers, including Alaa El-Aswani, in English.
And while attracting more and more readers, Youssef is trying to present them with what she thinks are better and better titles, a privilege, she says, associated with the fact that her client can flip through a book while having a coffee before deciding to buy it. "I will bring the bestsellers to my clients, especially in fiction because this is the number one demand I get, but I will also bring what I think are good books, serious fiction," she said.
After over a year in business, Youssef is still happy to see a client who comes in to buy the poetry of Salah Jahine, the classics of French and English literature and the recent novels that receive positive reviews from prominent magazines. Such a client, she says, is not only someone with a sufficient budget for books but also, and above all, is someone with good taste. Such taste, Youssef is convinced, could be cultivated through good education at schools and proper exposure to reading at home.
For Hassan Mohamed, an old time sales assistant at the most famous downtown Cairo bookstore Madboulie, when all is said and done the café-bookstore business is only a limited experience for the limited few. "The real bookworms come to us -- the traditional and old fashioned bookstores. They come knowing what they want and almost locating the books they want by themselves," he said. While acknowledging the attempt of the cafe-bookstore to attract a reluctant but potential reader, Hassan insists, "At the end of the day what is on offer at such places is more of a socialisation than reading atmosphere. Real readers would either go to a public library, and there are several in most major cities, or would simply go to their own bookstores and take their books home to read peacefully."
As far as Hassan is concerned, blending coffee and cigarette smoking with leafing through a book is more about showing off a fake association with books then actually getting into an intimate encounter with the titles. Like other assistants at traditional bookstores, Hassan is reluctant to qualify those who frequent the new trend of cafe-bookstores as readers. The real reader, they say, would have their coffee, if they wish, buy their book and leave.
The one thing that those who work in traditional bookstores and café- bookstores agree on is that in general reading is on the decline. In fact, in many ways they tend to also agree on the reasons behind the unimpressive statistics that report that in Egypt the reading consumption of every 85 individuals is one book a year while in Israel every individual consumes close to 30 books a year, not much less than the 35 books per person for Western countries.
Zahran, Youssef, Mahmoud and Hassan equally blame the deterioration of public schools and for that matter, "the entire government-run education system" for the lack of interest that young men and women show in reading. So while on the one hand there are millions of young people who are prompted by the state-run media to read, they argue there is on the other hand a more compelling system at the schools, and to an extent universities that all but prohibits reading as it emphasises the value of memorising things by heart over that of research and critical thinking.
"Unless the system of education is completely overhauled, all attempts to promote reading will only produce very humble results," Youssef stressed. "I believe that reading is a habit you pick up when young. This is why people in their late 30s read more than those in their early 20s. That generation is more attuned to reading than the younger generation," Karam said. She added that it is this specific conviction that prompted her to establish a special corner for children's books "where mothers can come and pick up books for kids as young as one year old or as old as 16, to read to them or encourage them to read on their own."
According to Hassan, "if university professors are urging their students to read the summaries of a few books rather than research their topics in libraries, then one should not expect these students to have the discipline of reading at all."
But it is not only education that is blamed by these bookstore mangers for the dismaying interest in reading and acquiring books. "We are largely a consumption oriented society. This is what we have become since the late 1970s [with the introduction of the open door policy of former President Anwar El-Sadat]. In the 1950s and 1960s people used to read with passion, at least the educated. But now it is almost out of fashion to read," Hassan said.
Moreover, the tough economic conditions are partially blamed for the decline of interest in books. Hassan, Youssef, Mahmoud and Zahran acknowledged that the priorities of a limited budget family expands way beyond allowing parents to buy books. It is for those who wish to read and cannot afford books that the "Reading for All" campaign is supposed to reach out for, they said.