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Photo: Lina Malers.
Customers return to Maktaba al-Sham in Mosul’s Old City. Isis kept residents from books, but books won out.

Today’s story honors people who embody the human spirit: rebuilders, booksellers, and book readers. Even in the darkest days of Mosul, Iraq, when Isis believed it could control people’s thoughts, readers hungered for books, and booksellers supplied them. Today one bookseller is rebuilding in the rubble of Mosul’s Old City, on a street once famous for bookshops.

Pesha Magid reports at Atlas Obscura, “Tucked into an alleyway off Najafi Street in Mosul’s Old City is a small red and gold sign advertising a bookstore: Maktaba al-Sham. Not long ago, it was one of countless bookstores along the wide avenue lined with arched windows and doorways. Since the early 1900s the street has been a bustling cultural hub where intellectuals meet to sip tea, debate friends, and buy books.

“But today Najafi Street is in ruins, burned by the ISIS fighters who occupied Mosul and bombed by a United States-led coalition in an effort to liberate the city. The airstrikes destroyed many of the buildings, leaving only pits in the ground. Others are broken, their wire and concrete innards twisted and exposed. The elegant arched building entrances that remain lead to empty, dark spaces. Inside the shell of one former shop, you can still see the outlines of books set aflame by ISIS preserved in ash. Four years after the liberation of Mosul in 2017, Maktaba al-Sham is the first, and so far the only, bookshop to return to the street.

“Daud Salim first opened Maktaba al-Sham around 2001. The now-49-year-old man with silver hair and a hummingbird’s constant energy has loved books since childhood, and he found a natural talent for selling them. He started with used copies of novels by famed authors such as Agatha Christie and Victor Hugo, as well as some history titles.

“Salim kept the store open when ISIS took over in 2014, but on December 5, 2016, as the battle between ISIS fighters and liberation forces began to advance toward the Old City he realized the only way he could survive was by closing the store and sheltering in his home on the other side of the city. During the final battles in 2016 and 2017 ISIS took refuge in the maze-like warren of small streets in the Old City, blowing up the bridges behind them and trapping civilians there as human shields.

“When Salim returned to Najafi Street in March 2018, almost a year after liberation, the Old City was still a dangerous place. The streets were littered with broken pieces of concrete, and ISIS had booby trapped houses with explosives. … Despite the devastation, Salim decided to reopen Maktaba al-Sham. “This bookstore has big memories for me. I spent more than 20 years here. So I remember every place, I remember who went where and who did what, and I longed for it,” he says.

Also, he says the rent was cheaper in the rubble.

“Maktaba al-Sham is a small sliver of a shop, its interior hardly bigger than a closet and its walls fully obscured by books. But this tiny store’s return has outsized meaning to Mosul residents who feel they lost a key part of their city’s heritage in the battle. After the conflict Mosul became like two cities divided by its river. The Left Side of the city, where fighting and airstrikes were less intense, is again full of bustling avenues, restaurants, cafés, and residential neighborhoods, while life has returned more slowly to the Right Side, where the Old City is located. New cafés and markets on the Left Side sell books and attempt to fill the gap that the destruction of Najafi Street left behind, but hundreds of years of history cannot be easily replaced.

“ ‘Any person who loves books in Mosul, if you ask him what street he loves, he will immediately answer Najafi Street,’ says Imad Abdul Azizi, a professor of history at the University of Mosul. … ‘I was so joyful when Maktaba al-Sham came back to Najafi Street.’ …

“ ‘After the fall of [Saddam Hussein’s] regime, people were excited to get to know books,’ [Salim] remembers. ‘It was so open, nothing was forbidden.’ … But when ISIS came to Mosul in 2014, they banned works that did not fit their strict religious guidelines, which Salim says included almost all non-religious books. …

“Books became contraband. Salim hid the majority of his stock in a storage unit near his bookshop and secretly met customers in alleyways.

He would pass [customers] copies of novels in black plastic bags. The most popular works during those years were anti-authoritarian novels like 1984. …

“Bookselling was dangerous. Salim says ISIS kidnapped a bookshop owner named Dhaker Ali for selling law books and they burned his shop on Najafi Street. … ISIS came for Salim’s books as well. In the summer of 2015, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, fighters found the storage unit where he had hidden 5,000 books. … ‘They believed the books I brought from Egypt on society and philosophy were a violation…so they started the fire,’ says Salim. …

“But he continued to acquire books. Because he could not travel to get new titles, he bought used books from people’s home libraries and sold them to loyal customers. …

“Coming back to the Old City [after liberation] was a risk to his business. He says when he initially opened he lost money, but the impact he made on the community encouraged him to keep going. Sometimes, people with memories of Najafi Street come to take pictures of him and his shop on the street of bookstores. ‘People gave me the bravery to stay,’ says Salim.”

More at Atlas Obscura, here.

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Photo: Robert Klose.
This shop in a low-income neighborhood of Bangor, Maine, has had the same owner since 1980.

People in my town love our independent bookstore, which seems to have been able to weather the pandemic so far. If I bought a book there before I was vaccinated, the staff would either mail it or offer curbside pickup. Now at last I feel comfortable going inside. Does your town have an indie?

Robert Klose wrote recently for the Christian Science Monitor about an indie bookshop in Maine. “The Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam once wrote, ‘When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.’

“This thought came to mind as I drove through one of Bangor, Maine’s poorest neighborhoods en route to a small, offbeat, secondhand bookstore that distinguishes an otherwise careworn street and bears the lofty moniker Pro Libris Books. …

“What a wonderful, wonderful thing to have a bookstore in one’s midst, especially in a place where other needs may incessantly intercede, and in an electronic age when so many bookstores – whether of the small, independent, mom and pop variety, or mega-outfits like Borders – have evaporated from our communities, seemingly overnight.

“Pro Libris Books is an unassuming but well-ordered cave of a shop occupying the ground floor of a peeling-paint clapboard building. … The owner, Eric Furry (is there a more appealing name for a bookseller?), has plied his trade since 1980 and, happily, still turns a profit.

“Mr. Furry, a small septuagenarian with an outsize crop of salt-and-pepper hair, touts his business as ‘A Reader’s Paradise.’ This seems to be enough to attract the rich variety of types I have observed there. …

“As I wander the stacks, dividing my time between titles and observing the other visitors, I note the interplay between patron and proprietor. Not everyone is there to buy. If I’m not mistaken in my interpretation of body language, my impression is that many are there to be – and I choose this word carefully – comforted. The familiar titles, the affordability of the volumes, the quirky touches (a coffin-turned-bookcase from the set of a Stephen King movie; a bumper sticker announcing, ‘Maybe the hokey-pokey is what it’s all about’; Mr. Furry’s roaming cat) return me to the consideration of what we need, of what is indeed essential. When I am visiting Pro Libris Books, I find myself siding with celebrated author John Updike, who once said, ‘Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.’ …

“When I broached the topic of necessity [of bookshops] with him, he recalled a woman who gave him a $20 bill for a $9.50 sale and told him to keep the change, remarking, ‘I just don’t want you to ever go away.’ And then there was the man who sent him $80 out of the blue because he was worried about how Mr. Furry was faring during the pandemic-induced lockdown. I asked about his survival secret. The answer: ‘Low overhead. And a loyal clientele.’ More here.

By the way, I never lose an opportunity to tell book lovers that https://bookshop.org/ has everything. Plus it gives a portion of sales to indies. Unless you think Amazon needs more money, please check it out.

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Photo: Idris Talib Solomon
‘It’s been a wild ride,’ says Andy Hunter, the founder of Bookshop.org.

Like many of you, I avoid using Amazon as much as possible because it is just too big, puts too many others out of business, and mistreats employees.

It wasn’t always like that. I was a customer who thought Amazon was wonderful, was impressed that I could find anything there, loved getting purchases delivered fast. Now I try to find alternatives.

I was happy to read about a new site for independent bookstores because I had found that ordering from my favorite local shop took forever in the pandemic’s early days. This might be more efficient.

Alison Flood writes at the Guardian, “It is being described as a ‘revolutionary moment in the history of bookselling’: a socially conscious alternative to Amazon that allows readers to buy books online while supporting their local independent bookseller. And after a hugely successful launch in the US, it is open in the UK from today.

Bookshop was dreamed up by the writer and co-founder of Literary Hub, Andy Hunter. It allows independent bookshops to create their own virtual shopfront on the site, with the stores receiving the full profit margin – 30% of the cover price – from each sale. All customer service and shipping are handled by Bookshop and its distributor partners, with titles offered at a small discount and delivered within two to three days.

“ ‘It’s been a wild ride,’ said Hunter, who launched the site in the US in January. ‘Five weeks into what we thought was going to be a six-month period of refining and improving and making small changes, Covid-19 hit and then suddenly we were doing massive business.’

“Initially starting with 250 bookshops, more than 900 stores have now signed up in the US. … By June, Bookshop sold $1m worth of books in a day. The platform has now raised more than [$7.5m] for independent bookshops across the US.

“ ‘We were four employees plus me, working at home, getting up as early as we could and going to bed as late as we could, trying to make it all work. It was a real white-knuckle ride,’ said Hunter. ‘But it was extremely gratifying because the whole time we were getting messages from stores saying, “Thank God you came along, you’ve paid our rent, you’ve paid our health insurance this year.” ‘ …

“Bookshop is a B Corporation, created with the mission ‘to benefit the public good by contributing to the welfare of the independent literary community.’ Rules state that it can never be sold to a major US retailer, including Amazon.

“Hunter believes the reason for Bookshop’s quick success is readers’ fondness for their local booksellers. ‘Bookstores have been in trouble for a while because of Amazon’s growth, but this pandemic has really accelerated it. Amazon has gotten much more powerful, while there are 100-year-old stores that are hanging on for survival,’ he said. …

“Hunter had been planning to launch Bookshop in the UK in 2021 or 2022. But after seeing the success of the platform in the US, shops, publishers and authors in the UK asked him to step up the timeline. … The UK arm of the company will be run by managing director Nicole Vanderbilt, the former international vice-president of Etsy. …

“Bookshops make no financial investment, with all customer service and shipping handled by Bookshop, and, in the UK, by distributor Gardners. … Each independent that joins has its own ‘storefront’ page, where customers can browse virtual tables of recommended books.

“For example, a user can see what the owner of The Shetland Times Bookshop (‘Britain’s most northerly general bookshop, situated over 60 degrees north and closer to Norway than to London’) personally recommends, in lists such as ‘wonderfully funny picture books I’ve read to the bookshop staff,’ and ‘books to help you take life in your stride.’ …

“ ‘It’s hard for us to compete with someone that’s got its own warehouse and sells books sometimes at a loss, or at very small profit margins. We just can’t do that. So it’s nice that Bookshop.org is going to rival Amazon in a way we couldn’t on our own or even collectively,’ said Georgia Eckert, of Imagined Things bookshop in Harrogate. ‘You’ve got to have the reach, a site that’s big enough, run by a proper team of people dedicated to it. We’re all running our own businesses and haven’t got time to be doing that.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: The Book Catapult
When a co-owner of the Book Catapult fell ill at the same time as the only full-time employee, rival bookstores in San Diego kept the shop open. (Pictured: The Book Catapult co-owners Seth Marko and Jennifer Powell, Marko’s wife.)

Never give up on humanity. In a February story at Publisher’s Weekly [PW], Claire Kirch reported on the selflessness of some booksellers in San Diego. Of course, we know that book people are remarkable folks, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that most people show kindness at some point in their lives.

Here’s what happened when a bookshop owner had emergency heart surgery while his only full-time employee was suffering from bird flu.

“The bad news coming out of the Book Catapult in San Diego’s South Park neighborhood,” wrote Kirch, “is that co-owner Seth Marko underwent emergency surgery immediately following his return home from Winter Institute 14 in Albuquerque, after suffering chest pains while there. Plus, the two-year-old store’s only full-time employee, Vanessa Diaz, came home from WI14 with a case of bird flu, or as she called it, ‘the Albuquerque swine flu.’

“The good news is that six booksellers from four other San Diego-area bookstores — The Library Shop, Warwick’s Bookshop, the University of California-San Diego’s bookstore, and Adventures by the Book — have volunteered their time for more than a week to keep the Book Catapult open during its regular hours, while Marko’s spouse, store co-owner Jennifer Powell, tends to him. (Marko left the hospital Wednesday). Another pair of booksellers, John Evans and Alison Reid, the two co-owners of Diesel: A Bookstore in Los Angeles, have committed to volunteering at the Book Catapult this weekend. [Ingram Publisher Services personnel pitched in later.]

 ‘It’s a story of redemption and hope,’ joked Library Shop manager Scott Ehrig-Burgess, who coordinated the volunteers and, he says, trained them on the store’s [Point of Sale] system. …

“ ‘I’ve had to turn away volunteers, from former booksellers to people who know nothing about books but want to help out,’ Ehrig-Burgess said. ‘We’re a close-knit community.’

“As for Evans, he says that he and Reid are driving down from L.A. to help out because Marko and Powell ‘are great people, fellow booksellers, [who] created a wonderful bookstore in their neighborhood and this health crisis just came out of nowhere. They are much-loved in the book community in Southern California, with Seth having various roles over the years in keeping the book culture vital, fun, and interesting.’

“Andrea Vuleta, the head of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association, told PW, ‘I am so pleased to see such warmth, community, and fellowship among our bookseller membership. I think it is one of best things about indies, the mutual support. Definitely something to be thankful for these days.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Katie Leigh

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Photo: Dave Parkinson / The Tivyside Advertiser
Retiring owner of Bookends bookshop in Cardigan, Paul Morris, left, with new owner Ceisjan van Heerden.

Here’s another great story about people who love bookstores enough to try running one. This version is not about taking on the gig for one day, as the New York Times book critic did in this post, or doing it for a vacation week, as I reported here. It’s about completely taking over.

Alison Flood has the story at the Guardian. “The UK’s newest independent bookseller is gearing up to open his doors [November 5, 2018] – after winning a bookshop in a raffle.

“The unusual prize was dreamed up by Paul Morris, who opened Bookends in Cardigan [Wales] four years ago. The shop is profitable and would have made an estimated £30,000 in a sale, but Morris said he wanted to give someone else the chance to realise their dream of running a bookshop. Over the last three months, anyone who spent more than £20 was eligible to be entered into a raffle to win it.

“The name of the winner, Ceisjan Van Heerden, who is from the Netherlands, was drawn out of a hat containing 59 others at a ceremony last week, as Abba’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ played to a crowd. …

“ ‘I thought about selling it, but I thought instead, let’s give someone an opportunity in life which they might not otherwise have had. The principle was to make sure the shop continues in good hands,’ he said. “[Ceisjan] is a regular customer and I’m really pleased it was him – he wants to run it.’ …

“Van Heerden told the Tivyside Advertiser that he was ‘so shocked’ when he heard he had won. ‘I love books and read a lot and just happened to be in the shop when a TV crew was making a film about Paul’s decision to raffle it off and I bought a ticket,’ said Van Heerden.

“He officially takes over the shop on 5 November and said he is planning to run it with a friend from Iceland, who is now moving to west Wales. Although the pair have been friends online for nine years, they have yet to meet face to face. ‘It might sound strange, but we are sure we can make it work. It is just an amazing opportunity,’ he said.” What could possibly go wrong?

More here.

 

 

 

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Photo: Celeste Noche
Charming Wigtown, Scotland, is famous as a “book town.”

Do you remember reading my post about Alex Johnson’s survey of “book towns,” small locales with numerous emporiums for buying books? Well, here’s another angle from the New York Times. It describes how a book critic got a taste of running a bookstore in one of the better known book towns.

Dwight Garner reports, “Recently, if only for a day, I had a bookstore in Scotland. …

“It is worth getting to Wigtown, population 1,000. [It] is lush and green and smells of the nearby sea. It is Scotland’s national book town, its Hay-on-Wye. With a dozen used bookstores tucked into its small downtown, it is a literary traveler’s Elysium.

“Best of all, Wigtown offers a literary experience unlike any other I’m aware of. In town there is a good used bookstore called the Open Book, with an apartment up above, that’s rentable by the week. Once you move in, the shop is yours to run as you see fit.

“I was handed the keys and a cash box. I was told I could reshelve and redecorate. I could invite Elena Ferrante and Thomas Pynchon to speak, and Sly Stone to play, if I could find them.

“The Open Book is run by a nonprofit group. It has touched a chord with so many people, from every continent, that it’s booked through 2021, which is as far as Airbnb will take reservations. There’s a waiting list after that. I managed to wedge myself in for a single night by begging and whining. …

“My first task as proprietor of the Open Book was one I hadn’t anticipated. What to write on the slate sandwich board that sits out front?

“A favorite exhortation came to mind. With chalk I scrawled: ‘Read at whim! Read at whim! — Randall Jarrell.’ For the opposite side, after a bit of puzzling, and given my physical and mental state, I shakily wrote: ‘Of course it’s all right for librarians to smell of drink. — Barbara Pym.’ I set my board outside.

“It was time to get a look around. The Open Book is not entirely my kind of used bookstore in that its literature section is modest, dwarfed by the sections for miscellaneous subjects like birds and Scotland and garden design. But there was a nice shelf of Penguins under the register. …

“I’ve worked in many bookstores in my life, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed them. It’s surprising what you learn, as if by osmosis, a daily mental steeping, about every possible subject.

“Often you learn more than you want to know, when people bring to the register books about hemorrhoid care, loneliness or coping with the death of a child. To this day, when a young person asks me for advice about finding employment in the word business, I say (after telling them to read like lunatics): Work in a bookstore if you can find one, or a library, all through high school and college. …

“A young couple, Beth Porter and Ben Please, arrived with their infant daughter, Molly. They had musical instruments in tow: Beth, a cello; Ben, a ukulele; Molly, a toy glockenspiel.

“Porter and Please are the core members of the Bookshop Band. They write songs inspired by books and play them in bookstores. I’d met them the night before at [large-bookshop proprietor Shaun] Bythell’s apartment, which is above his store. They’d decided to welcome me to Wigtown by performing an impromptu concert.

“The Bookshop Band is not just good but achingly good — listen to its soulful lament ‘Accidents and Pretty Girls,’ based on Ned Beauman’s novel ‘The Teleportation Accident’ — and it played a resonant 20-minute set for me and a few lucky droppers-in.”

More about the band and the temporary-shop-owner experience at the New York Times, here, where you can also enjoy some delightful photos. For an overview of Wigtown shops, check this out, too.

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Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Visitors play music and talk together in a Cairo, Egypt, bookshop where the new “scream room” is found.

There’s a rather unusual bookstore in Cairo: one that offers customers a room where, if they feel the need to scream, they can just let it rip. No charge for ten minutes.

“Visitors to a bookshop in Cairo are being invited into a dark, soundproof room to scream at the top of their lungs in an effort to relieve their frustrations and escape from the stresses of daily life.

“The new ‘scream room’ is tucked away in the ‘The World’s Door’ bookshop and is also equipped with a full drum kit allowing customers to let go of their worries …

“Owner AbdelRahman Saad offers each visitor ten minutes inside the private scream room, free of charge. He believes it is the first room of its kind in the Middle East.

” ‘I entered it at a time when I was really stressed and came out much more relaxed,’ said frequent visitor Mohamed el-Debbaby. ‘What’s even better is that I was able to find solutions to the problem I was facing.” More here.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Adela Suliman; Editing by Patrick Johnston/Jeremy Gaunt)

Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Mohamed el-Debbaby, a dentist, screams in a soundproof room inside a bookshop in Cairo in an effort to escape from the stresses of daily life.

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Julie Turkewitz writes at the NY Times about a mountain library planned by two not-exactly-wealthy book lovers with big ideas.

“The project is striking in its ambition: a sprawling research institution situated on a ranch at 10,000 feet above sea level, outfitted with 32,000 volumes, many of them about the Rocky Mountain region, plus artists’ studios, dormitories and a dining hall — a place for academics, birders, hikers and others to study and savor the West.

“It is the sort of endeavor undertaken by a deep-pocketed politician or chief executive, perhaps a Bloomberg or a Buffett. But the project, called the Rocky Mountain Land Library, has instead two booksellers as its founders.

“For more than 20 years, Jeff Lee, 60, and Ann Martin, 53, have worked at a Denver bookshop, the Tattered Cover, squirreling away their paychecks in the pursuit of a single dream: a rural, live-in library where visitors will be able to connect with two increasingly endangered elements — the printed word and untamed nature. …

“They have poured an estimated $250,000 into their collection of 32,000 books, centering the collection on Western land, history, industry, writers and peoples. There are tales by Norman Maclean; wildlife sketches by William D. Berry; and books on beekeeping, dragonflies, cowboys and the Navajo. …

“Mr. Lee and Ms. Martin have a grant from the South Park National Heritage Area and this summer will finally begin renovations, repairing two leaky roofs. Construction will be limited, however, as they have gathered less than $120,000 in outside funds. An estimated $5 million is needed to build out their dream.” More here.

Photo: Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times

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My winter resolution will have to be to find more photo ops when the world isn’t blooming. I’ll have to look harder for interesting shadows and shapes in a black & white world. In the meantime, I sure am enjoying summer picture taking.

The first photo is of a Little Free Library in the Greenway. (Check out the concept here.) Then there’s the Bookshop window. Can you read the funny signs? They say, “I don’t remember the title … but the cover was blue.”

Next is the herb garden behind the church and Doug Baker’s bonsai trees. He once gave a very young Suzanne and her friend Joanna little bonsai trees, admonishing them that the trees had to be as carefully tended as babies. (Alas, the girls were too young to tend babies.)

After the planter with the escaping petunias come flowering weeds and hydrangeas on my street.

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The independent bookstore where I live is assuming the whole town knows that the publisher Hachette is fighting with Amazon. I say that because it has devoted a whole window to Hachette books, with a statement about carrying any book you want but no statement about the Amazon fight.

Amazon may finally have gone too far. People are fighting back against its absolute power. Asakiyume, for example, is practically a one-woman campaign to get its warehouse staff better working conditions.

And there are other initiatives. Jennifer Rankin writes at the Guardian, “Independent booksellers are being sent reinforcements in the battle against Amazon …

“My Independent Bookshop, a social network for book lovers from Penguin Random House, [is] an online space where anyone can review their favourite books and show off their good taste on virtual shelves.

“Crucially, readers can also buy books from the site, with a small proportion of takings going to support scores of local independent book stores. …

“A reader’s nominated home store – which doesn’t have to be geographically close – will get 5% of the revenues from every physical book they buy and 8% on an ebook. The site is a tie-up with the e-commerce website Hive, which has been offering a similar service to local shops since 2011.”

Read more at the Guardian, here. Check out the lively comments there, too.

Photo: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
The new Penguin Random House may give independent booksellers a boost in online sales. 

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