By Nadine El Guiddawy
On a walk from Talaat Harb Square to Ramsis Street, one will see countless bookshops in the midst of the hustle and bustle that is Cairo. Located in the heart of Downtown is “Madbuli Bookshop”. After 65 years in operation, it is still very much in business, and continues serving Egypt’s bibliophiles.
Most of the bookstores in the Downtown area were established before and during the British occupation. “My grandfather, Sobhy Greiss, started this business as a bookshop in 1928, and up until now we still sell English academic books,” said Fady Greiss, the current owner of The Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop.
Others bookshops did not start off the way The Anglo Egyptian Bookshop did. Instead, they found their roots as newspaper stands, and slowly grew their businesses into the bookshops that litter Cairo today.
Before owning his first bookshop, Al-Hagg Madbuli was allowed a special privilege; he “was the only one allowed to go inside buildings in this area and distribute newspapers to British people”. It was only after he got familiarised with the literary world that “he decided to have his own bookshop,” said Abdel Aziz, the manager of Madbuli Bookshop.
Some the early bookshops that opened were unable to compete, and have since gone out of business, but the ones that remained did so because of their shrewd business skills. As Abdel Aziz describes it, the bookshop owners “were very ambitious. They wanted to help education in Egypt, and that is what kept them alive up until the modern day”.
The Anglo0Egyptian Bookshop, Madbuli Bookshop, Al-Shorouk are great examples of shops that helped improve education standards in Egypt by facilitating the sale of written material that would help students in and out of the classroom.
Readers from around Cairo would come specifically to these bookshops to buy texts they could not find anywhere else. “All the Arabic book collections are available here, we also have Russian and German books translated into Arabic,” said Abdel Aziz. “If you can’t find what you are looking for, we order it. We even import books from Iran because they are cheaper and students need them.”
The availability of exclusive books was not the only reason behind the success of the Downtown bookshops. Once the shops were firmly established, the owners decided to change gears and not just sell books, but seek out talented writers to publish their works. This proved to be a huge success within literary circles in Egypt, and helped gain plenty of exposure for the bookshops, which had turned into publishing houses.
By the 1960s, popular writers in Egypt started to get their works published by the Downtown bookshops. Madbuli was publishing works by some great writers, such as Nizar Qabbani, the celebrated Syrian poet and diplomat, and Anis Mansour, the Egyptian writer and author of “200 Days Around the World”. “Owners knew that it was always a good idea to be friends with popular authors in order to publish books for them and get more exposure,” said Abdel Aziz.
Also, modern Egyptian writers like Alaa Al-Aswani published one of his first novels “Yacoubian Building” at Madbuli. However, he published his second book at Al-Shorouk bookstores for financial reasons.
The owners are trying to figure out better ways to make the shops withstand the test of time. With the advent of the Internet, the shops are losing some ground. However, according to Greiss, the ability to “import Academic books for college students” has given them a slight advantage.
Adapting to the changing times is also helping business endure. Greiss goes on to say that The Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop chose technology: “We now have eBooks, and you can have a membership in order to read books online, and also have your notes written on them”.
The successful Downtown bookshops have branches around Cairo, in neighbourhoods such as Heliopolis, Zamalek and Nasr City.
Despite the move towards the digital, these old bookshops prove that the residents of Cairo still enjoy escaping the bustle of a city by dipping into a literary sanctuary – a world which captures one’s imagination with words and ideas. One finds comfort in knowing that these storehouses of knowledge, which have been on the scene since the 1900s, continue to flourish in Cairo.