A large sign of the Arabic letter “Alef” graces the entrance of the bookstore that opened its branch in Zamalek last Friday. Shades of desert-dune yellows provide a cool interior offset with Arabesque motifs. Despite its low ceilings, the inside of this bookstore is a comfortable place to wander through.
Upstairs, one of the charms of the Alef bookstore in Zamalek is the spacious and comfortable sofa. There, one can sit back comfortably holding a book, a coffee (when the café opens) and a conversation, as it so happens on this day, with the bookstore managers Ahmed Rahmy and Ahmed Mahdy.
While both now run the bookstore, they are quick to inform you that the main initiator and sponsor of the idea is business partner Omar El-Shenaty.
Much like the sofa, Alef hopes its creative services are will put customers at ease, and set the bookstore apart from competitors like Shorouk and Diwan, and next-door neighbors Romancia and Zamalek Bookshop.
“There is a barrier between Egyptians and the reading community,” says Rahmy, explaining their motivations behind opening the bookstore. Alef aims to use creative ways to invite readers into the book world that they may find daunting to wade through unaided.
One innovative way through which Alef recommends books to readers is a software program — the beta version of this already exists at its Heliopolis outlet. Based on your reading styles and specific answers to questions posed, the software produces up to three book recommendations in your area of interest.
Another personable form of introduction to books is provided through a knowledge consultant. Emad El-Adly, a professional writer educated in law, philosophy, and literature, spends a few hours a week at Heliopolis providing recommendations to readers in Arabic literature. Alef hopes to soon introduce both aforementioned services to the Zamalek branch.
Besides personalized services, that the managers say will allow readers to better choose books, Alef also organizes cultural activities to attract customers. These activities are not limited to showcasing writers. Previous events have featured stand-up comedians, kids’ workshops, painting, drawing, storytelling and scriptwriting seminars.
“When people engage themselves in activities, they feel they want to develop themselves more,” says Mahdy.
Future workshops will involve “take-away sessions” in journalism skills and documentary-making.
Another feature offered by Alef is authors’ recommendations of their favorite reads. At the Heliopolis branch, Alaa Al-Aswany and Galal Amin’s photos stands above books they recommend. “This builds a rapport between authors and visitors,” says Rahmy.
Another way that Alef drops in a recommendation is through the “tayyara” (airplane), a brief note that falls out of recommended books. Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” for example, carries one of these notes under the category of “a book that can create change.” Other categories include a “debatable” book, such as Youssef Ziedan’s controversial best-seller “Azazel.”
Alef holds a bold mission statement printed on its Diwan-style bags. The blurb on passing the beacon of knowledge of Arab civilization to its visitors “sounds powerful,” said one customer, but needed to be backed up with an emphasis on education. “The bookstore opening didn’t inform me about that much.”
Visitors to Alef on Friday found that the bookstore follows a prevalent trend. It is “largely focusing on the new audience, but coming out with Arabic names and trying to reengage the community that way.”
Managers Rahmy and Mahdy tell you the emphasis on Arabic-English reading is 50/50, yet the slant towards Arabic literature mixed with cultural activities is palpable. Although one walks in through the English sections, the Arabic department enjoys the larger part of the interior and upstairs display.
In many ways, Alef is not all that innovative — or at least not yet. “The Book Club” on Sakia Radio already provides personalized book counseling, an idea heralded by young novelist Mary Shenouda. Diwan paved the way in providing a café-and-bookstore, also hosting many activities and events.
Shorouk bookstores dominate the Arabic scene, while both Diwan and AUC bookstores host an unbeatable selection of literature. While Alef may not take over the book scene, it has already definitely made a good stand in it. Both Heliopolis and Zamalek venues are worth stopping and returning to. One unique visitor benefit is the 40 percent discount received on another purchase when you return a one-month old purchase.
In its upcoming events, Alef will host a book discussion of acclaimed novel “Astasia” by Khairy El-Shalaby. Three new branches have opened up in Marina, and Alef will hopes to launch another branch in Maadi in a few months.
Alef branches: 132, Merghany St. Heliopolis; 2, Taha Hussein St., Zamalek. For more information on the bookstore visit its Facebook page or http://www.alefbookstores.com/.
Besides personalized services to help readers choose books, Alef also organizes cultural activities. (Courtesy of Alef Bookstore)