Egyptian bookseller ALEF opens store in London
London - Just a few doors down from 221b Baker Street, the home of fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes, a new Egyptian bookshop has opened in London, seamlessly joining the cultural fabric of the British capital.
Well-known Egyptian bookseller ALEF has opened its first international branch in London, catering to the city’s large Arab expat community, as well as other Londoners who want to learn more about the Middle East, or buy a Sherlock Holmes book.
“We have had a very positive reaction to the [London] store with people visiting and following us on social media through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It is all very early days yet,” store manager Farah Taylor said.
“It would be great to see more of the Arab community visit the store. We have a wide selection of books available in Arabic, including children’s books, as well as a great collection of Arabic authors translated into English,” she added.
The London store, bright and well-lit, has tables of books showcasing English-language volumes on the Middle East, or English-language translations of well-known Arabic novels, alongside bookshelves of more regular fare. An inconspicuous alcove close to the front counter leads to the Arabic section, which offers a fine selection of Arabic-language novels and non-fiction.
ALEF was founded in 2009 as a unique upscale bookstore for Egypt’s urban elite, competing with the more-established Diwan Bookstore. Within its first year, ALEF underwent rapid expansion, opening six branches across the country. ALEF now has 33 stores across Egypt, in addition to its new London shop.
The chain mastered social media to attract new customers and keep previous visitors coming back. It also launched the Knowledge Taxi project in 2010 to much critical acclaim, turning a number of Cairo’s taxis into mobile libraries.
ALEF’s London branch opens at a time when the UK bookseller industry is going through a transition period with the number of independent bookshops in decline and stiff competition among major chains due to the rise of Amazon and ebooks.
But ALEF has a trick or two up its sleeve and will seek not just to be a bookstore but also a cultural hub for London’s Arab community, which is one of the largest in the world outside of Arab nations themselves.
‘We intend to host book signings, talks and children’s story-time sessions and maybe even an Arabic Book Club from early next year. I want to carve out an events programme that is a little different to your average high street bookshop. An events programme that celebrates our Middle East heritage with a variety of events in both English and Arabic,” Taylor said.
“There are such amazing Arabic writers out there and I would like to introduce everyone in London to them. We want our bookshop to provide a good mix of British and Arab culture and hopefully appeals to everyone looking for a place to buy great books.”
London has another major Arabic bookshop — Al Saqi Bookshop — which has been serving London’s expat Arab community since 1978. But Taylor said that London is big enough for two Arabic bookstores.
“We are not seeking to compete with Saqi Books. Our store is very different in nature to Saqi,” she said. “Primarily, we have a large children’s section and are trying to appeal to the whole families. We are a store where Mum, Dad, your 3-year-old and your teenager can all purchase books, whether they are Arabic or English.
“We have a wide selection of Arabic fiction in stock. And we also sell a few Saqi publications. Speaking to customers, many of our Middle East customers are keen to encourage their children to pick up Arabic books, hopefully we can help parents with that by offering a good selection of books in a warm and inviting place. This is not something that has previously been available to the Arab community in London.”
According to its mission statement, ALEF aims “to create highly knowledgeable, intellectual and well-read Arab communities throughout the world”.
As for whether ALEF will expand beyond London to cater to Arab expats in France, Germany or elsewhere, Taylor said: “This is ALEF Bookstores’ first international store outside of Egypt and hopefully the first of many across Europe.”