Cairo Bookstore Trend: Going the Opposite Way of North America

From what I read and hear, bookstores in North America seem to be undergoing tough times: closing down, battling online sales, dreading e-books, trying strange new gambits to keep customers flowing.

This goes not just for the independents, but for the big Borders and B & N brick-and-mortar stores, too.

On the other hand, here in Cairo, the Diwan chain started up less than a decade ago, in 2002 in Zamalek, and seems to be thriving: it has spread its tentacles to locations in Ma’adi, Heliopolis, Alexandria, Cairo University, and elsewhere (although mostly, it must be noted, the wealthier districts). Kotob Khan opened in New Ma’adi in 2005. The Alef chain—which now includes stores in Zamalek, Heliopolis, Marina, and El Rehab (although the El Rehab store is more of a glorified closet)—launched just last year. Shorouk, while a longstanding fixture, has recently opened up new branches, and now manages eight stores.

That’s not to mention the indies: Bookspot, Adam, Town House Gallery books, the brand-new AUC Press bookstore. (Al Balsam Books has a nice starter list of stores.)

Some commentators have said that this new interest in books is largely for the upper class and even-more-largely status-focused. The complaint is that people aren’t so much in love with books or learning or reading as they are in love with showing off their books. And Egyptians (en masse) still read relatively little. Despite the insane attendance at our book festival, a recent poll found that 88% of “Egyptian families” were not interested in reading.

But the bookstore trend is nonetheless real. Bookstores, while perhaps not wildly profitable, are not shutting down. Pioneer Diwan.Com just moved to corner a piece of the online market, partnering with Souq.Com, apparently the “fastest-growing e-commerce site in Egypt” (by their own report).

According to the Souq.Com GM Omar Soudodi, the Internet will also be an important way for Egyptians to buy books:

25% of Egyptians use the internet to learn about the products they would like to purchase and 12.5% actually buy the products online so for Diwan Bookstores it is essential to establish a presence online to cater to this growing segment in Egypt.

This bookstore burst is also accompanied by an even-more-important re-birth of Arabic children’s literature: Kalimat books, Bloomsbury-Qatar, Sherouk Kids, and others are suddenly putting out high-quality Arabic-language kids’ books where little existed just 10 years ago. (For more about that, check out our sister blog, Read Kutub Kids.)

Perhaps this isn’t really a “movement” any more than the surge in upscale Cairo coffeeshops is a movement. And perhaps the Economist errs when it suggests Egypt will reach 90 percent literacy in a generation.

But as for me, I’m happy to find reasons to hope.


Although this piece gets a somewhat optimistic spin from AP correspondent Hamza Hendawi, things don’t sound so very great for bookstores in Iraq.