To really get the UAE reading, we need much better bookstores

“I believe reading defines a society and its progress,” the UAE Minister of State Noura Al Kaabi said recently, talking to the theme of the country’s admirable Year of Reading initiative.

I’d say that bookshops also define a society and its progress. And by this measure, the UAE has still got a lot of ground to make up.

Most potential readers will encounter bookshops in the big malls, and it will almost certainly be via a branch of Borders, Virgin or Jashanmal that they do so. Magrudy’s, which was a force for good a few years back, seems to have pulled out of the big Dubai malls altogether.

Apart from Kinokuniya, the aircraft hangar of a bookshop in The Dubai Mall (more of which later), the market is dominated by the trio mentioned above. And what a poor product they offer.

Neither is really a bookshop any more. Borders’ main line seems to be children’s toys, Virgin’s books seem an afterthought to the electronic gadgets, videos and CDs. Jashanmal tries harder than these two, but increasingly it’s becoming a stationery/toys/souvenirs outlet too. If you want a bookmark in the shape of the Burj Khalifa, it’s great. If you want a book to put it in, the offering is poor.

It’s not that these three don’t have books. Of course, they do — shelf upon shelf of them. But the variety, categorisation and display are all so depressingly mediocre.

London bookshops, where I have clocked up many happy hours browsing, are constantly changing treasure troves. You can walk in looking for one specific title, and walk out with half a dozen books. The joy lies in finding new books that you never knew existed, on subjects you didn’t know you were interested in. That’s mind-expanding.

In the UAE’s big mall bookshops, such pleasures are absent. The in-your-face displays contain shelf upon shelf of potboiler novels, or lifestyle publications, or management books. Just who buys management books, seriously?

But if you want to delve seriously into history, for example, it’s almost laughable. In the “history and current affairs” section of one of the big three recently I found a Beyoncé autobiography, a few coffee table books about Dubai and the UAE, and the complete works of Richard Branson.

The book I was looking for is a current best-seller in London and New York, but was nowhere to be seen. The assistant I asked looked it up on the system, told me (as I’d already guessed) that is was not available, and that it would take four weeks to order. She looked very keen to get back to the electronics gadget counter, which I suspect is where her real expertise lay.

Kinokuniya is miles better. The cavernous store offers great selection, good display, helpful and informed staff. The toys, gadgets and souvenirs encroach, but not too intrusively.

But even here I have complaints, especially about history. Unless you’re looking for a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf — always prominent — it can be very difficult to find what you’re after.

Why can’t Kinokuniya open up elsewhere? Abu Dhabi in particular would seem to be crying out for a bookstore of this quality. All my attempts to ask senior executives at Kinokuniya have failed. A bookshop that doesn’t like talking to the press? Now there’s a novelty.

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