Independent Arabic bookshops deserve to be treasured

Independent Arabic bookshops deserve to be treasured

Independent Arabic bookshops deserve to be treasured
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Situated in a striking former theater in London, Al Saqi Books has been hailed as Europe’s largest Middle Eastern specialist bookseller and is renowned for being a favorite among the intellectual hipster and literary lover sets. Founded in 1978 by a trio of Lebanese expatriates — Andre and Salwa Gaspard, along with the late Mai Ghoussoub — the bookshop has become something of a cultural hotspot over the years, featuring an exquisite and finely curated collection of high-quality literature that celebrates the best in Arabic publishing and heritage, as well as a bustling forum for hosting author talks, discussions and literary events. Sadly, this hallmark destination is set to shut down after 44 years of operation due to the current economic challenges. This news caused a tornado of torment among bibliophiles, who are devastated by the tragic loss of this iconic bookshop.

Never one to miss out on the boundless allure of books, literary aficionados find a special charm in perusing collections within independent bookshops. Whether it is the elegantly designed Carturesti Carusel in Bucharest, the landmark Hatchards in London, the magnificent theater-turned-bookshop El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires or Paris’ Librairie Galignani, the oldest English-language bookshop in continental Europe, each venue has played an invaluable role in shaping literary and cultural experiences over the years.

There are thoughtful extra touches to be found in bookshops. Each venue offers a unique and fascinating collection of books, inspired by founders and curators, which are then promoted to eager and creative readers. With reams of books offering an opportunity to ponder, explore and be inspired, customers have an abundance of choice to support their personal interests and intellectual journeys. When it comes to events, visitors are always in for a treat as they meet with adored authors and discuss transcendent themes.

Considering their historical, cultural and intellectual roles, it is vital to discuss how the Arab world can retain its iconic independent bookshops during this age of volatility. Disruptions in supply chains, surging energy prices, costly operations, increased digital competition and declining readership have made the past few years precarious for bookshops. Amid this web of uncertainty, there is a great need for bookshops to be sufficiently supported in order to navigate the many fault lines and fractures affecting the publishing industry.

Governmental tourism agencies should promote bookshops as popular cultural destinations and as bedrocks of Arab culture

Sara Al-Mulla

These challenges require policymakers to roll up their sleeves and formulate practical, responsive and effective solutions that ensure the sustainability of independent bookshops. The first place to start is to support bookshops in achieving a solid ground on which to operate, via offering special grants, business relief packages, zero-interest loans and subsidies. Governments should also sign purchasing contracts with bookshops to source high-quality books to stock up the collections within public libraries, school libraries and cultural centers.

Booksellers also face some confounding challenges in today’s market, which is why investing in professional training and upskilling programs is a great way to equip them with useful knowledge and practical skills, such as curating attractive book collections, designing attractive window displays, fashioning exciting literary events, recommending books according to genre and age group, delivering enthusiastic customer service, promoting the bookshop on digital platforms, and managing finances.

A newly evident theme in grant-making is the importance of investing in digital transformation and e-commerce for bookshops to access a wider global market. Last month, the Canadian government announced an $8.8 million funding package to support the country’s independent bookshops in scaling their digital presence in an effort to boost sales of Canadian-authored books.

Another great case study can be gleaned from France, home to some 3,300 independent bookshops. French law obliges publishers to set a fixed price for new books, whether readers choose to buy them online or from independent bookshops, with a maximum discount of 5 percent. Currently, lawmakers are aiming to pass another bill to set a €3 ($3.15) minimum delivery charge for all online book orders of less than €35 in an effort to support independent bookshops against the fierce competition of global book platforms.

A trip to any city often includes browsing bookshops in order to find local literary gems. That is why governmental tourism agencies should promote bookshops as popular cultural destinations and as bedrocks of Arab culture. At the same time, marketers should highlight bookshops as vibrant venues that bring together a constellation of thought leaders, intellectuals, trailblazers and imaginative creators. They can create literary experiences that are authentic yet whimsical but always thought-provoking and transformative.

Over the years, many people have delighted in attending events that shed light on central themes in the form of author talks and book signings, themed reading groups, book clubs, art exhibitions and cultural lectures. Thus, government sponsorship of events that focus on Arab writers and the region’s culture is key to enriching the cultural calendar of any city.

It is vital that we support the vast networks of independent Arabic bookshops across the world in order to propel and preserve the richness of our heritage on the global literary stage.

• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view