Fancy yourself a book buff? May Mansour heads downtown in search of the weird, the wonderful, the well-stocked and the historical as she uncovers the best bookstores in Cairo's original intellectual quarters...
Egypt's veritable playground for intellectuals throughout the ages, it's no doubt that downtown Cairo is filled with historic book stores. From those with shelves lined with academic must-reads to the hidden treasures holding valuable first-prints and unique collectables, here's our guide on book shopping:
We start with the obvious. Locals and visitors in the downtown area have all certainly passed by this place at some point in time, if not constantly. Located in the heart of Downtown, at 6 Talaat Harb street, Madbuli is home for a colossal and extensive range of classic, modern and subversive Arabic literature. From vintage and contemporary novels to scholarly and educational books, this is a must on any book shoppers' list.
The bookstore has been around for about 40 years according to third-generation owner Amr Madbuli whom I had a chance to speak to. “The place was only a kiosk when my grandfather had it back in the day. My father later started to help and bring in newspapers, then magazines, and books and eventually got into publishing and translating international classics. We were also one of the first to import books and take order requests, and still do, mainly from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.” Their most rare collection circulates within their scholarly section, which Madbuli claims his favourite reads subsist. “I also enjoy the works of Said El Emny, Mohamed Saeed El Ashmawy and Khalil Abdel Kerim,” he adds. Madbuli is certainly a place to go to for all your Arabic literature needs from vintage neuroscience and psychology books, to regional B-novels.
Lehnert & Landrock
Lehnert & Landrock (L&L) bookshop and gallery on 44 Sherif Street has been in standing since 1904, established by Swiss photographer Rudolf Lehnert and explorer Ernst Landrock, with Landrock’s step-grandson Edouard Lamblet managing the business today. Their gallery is their most prized possession, with photos from Lehnert’s extensive work mostly around Palestine, Tunis, and Egypt's Luxor and Aswan displayed for sale, excluding over 3000 stored archival images.
“Mr. Lehnert preserved these photos on glass plates and we held all his originals up until four years ago when they had to relocate them to a Swiss museum due to the poor weather conditions and humidity that were starting to affect the prints,” says Said Aly, who has been working at L&L for 36 years. “We created copies using the internegative technique Mr. Lehnert used which also enables us to create different sizes of the photos ranging from 6x8 to 50x60. These are our main sales here.” L&L’s most popular literature circulates around Egyptology, German lsnguage and art books, although they have a decent selection of classic authors including Shakespeare, Dickens, Victor Hugo and Thomas Hardy, Dostoyevsky, T.S. Elliot, Hemingway, Arthur Miller, and Bernard Shaw. At the top floor there’s a gallery of paintings along with handmade Oriental garments, bags, trinkets and furniture all for sale at reasonable prices, while by the cashier you'll find another selection of souvenirs including postcards, papyrus, booklets and key chains as well as classic movie snaps on coasters, notebooks and magnets. It’s a diverse and multi cultural space for the urbane and cultivated folks of Cairo. The more you dig in the more you’ll find.
Relatively smaller in size than the aforementioned bookshops, located around the corner on Hussein Basha al-Meamari Street, Townhouse bookshop is interestingly engaging with more underground vintage and modern literature works. Here we find only a few classics in comparison to their selection of second-hand and deliciously non-standard English and Arabic fiction and non-fiction reads; even if the authors are well known in some cases, the books on display are on the rare and underrated side of their works. In the corner were several Arabic comic books, and a particular one called Foot Aleina Bokra (Pass By Tomorrow) caught my attention, but before I lost myself in the literature present I decided to go into the gift shop right by the bookshop, where I met Mena, the lovely and cooperative manager at Townhouse who was more than pleased to speak with me.
He explained how the bookshop has been around for eight years now, whereas Townhouse itself along with its library have been established for almost two decades. “A lot of the reads you may find in the bookshop are donated by mostly youth and foreigners. So we have some rather anomalous works you may come across by chance, and in various languages, at a starting price of LE7 and going up to LE150-200. Make sure to check the recently renovated Townhouse library around the corner where all the more expensive or imported works are available.” I walk back into the bookshop and spend more time looking through all the interesting finds and surprisingly early editions of a few notable authors. I wouldn’t know where to begin on how impressive their modest selection of books is. Simply head out there and check it out.
Round the corner I walk into the main building, and on the 2nd floor find a library with all kinds of crazy books. It's Rimbaud-mania up there with all the collected musical and artistic works of Rimbaud fans, printed Rimbaud merchandise, graffiti and artwork as well as original scanned pages from his poems, letters and notes. Women rights books, political reads on historical and current world affairs and struggles also populate the Townhouse Library. “Most people come here for photography, music and art books though,” says Soliman who decorates and manages the library. There is an extensive list of educational books on all things aesthetically engaging.
It certainly won’t be the last time I pass by over there for a coffee and a quiet read in the sunlit and cozy space. Do bare in mind that the building has no signs of the library being in there, just look out for a big, half derelict door located on the street on the right side of the bookshop.
Angelo Egyptian Bookshop:
The 87-year-old Angelo Egyptian Bookshop on 165 Mohamed Farid Street is probably a central hub for students, lecturers and academics of all sorts. A relatively large space with shelves reaching all the way to the ceiling and full of magnificent collections of literature, with hundreds of copies of each read present on the shelves or stored away. You walk in to be greeted on your left with endless amounts of Ancient Egyptian history books, world history books on the left and a little further you’ll find shelves full of encyclopedia and travel books on the right, literature classics on the left.
Noteworthy finds for leisurely readers will probably be found in the separated corner rooms, where you enter two half closed square spaces in different sides of the bookshop, with one full of music and arts books along with some modern and classic literature, and another full of several modern editions of distinguished authors and novels and poetry books by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Tony Harrison. There’s almost too much to look into there, but after a long period of fiddling with all the books you’ll come across authors such as George Orwell, William Golding, Mark Twain, and English Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfuz literature; anything that’s anything is in there! Downstairs a whole floor dedicated to Arabic literature. They also import books by orders and have a digital bookstore.
Abou El Reesh:
I save the best for last with this incredible goldmine of a bookshop. It's more like a book warehouse located in a derelict building in Saieda Zeinab. Bare with me here as I’ll have to walk you through this one. Behind, or sort of next to Saieda Zeinab metro station, you’ll find a line of yellow kiosks under a bridge, all faded in colour, all bookshops! That’s not it though, but you head there, ask for Mohamed Zebda, who you’ll find at the end of the line if you keep walking forward with the kiosks on your left. Zebda will ask you what kind of books you’re looking for; I asked for the classics and was directed by a kid to the building behind all the kiosks.
We walk into a dark room which he lights up and behold! The most rare and most exquisite early, if not first, editions of fiction and non-fiction literature, and for the cheapest and most reasonable prices! Zebda is a genuine collector who has gained a massive archive of second hand books from numerous sources now located in several sectors of the derelict building. Philosophy books, psychology books, music and art books… all rare, all underground! I found and bought Metamorphosis by Kafka for LE25; enough said. I recommend this place to any intellectual readers or book lovers; it IS worth the effort of getting there, it’s not as hard to find as you may think, and oh, you certainly won’t be disappointed once you reach the destination. I could easily say if this place does some publicity, all these commercial bookstores around Cairo, who by the way sell books as such for no less than LE150, will run out of business, and it is certainly public enough as of this moment. The rest is up to you…
Photography exclusive to CairoScene by Ahmed Alloush.