Lessons in bookselling & survival

At Sharjah Bookseller Conference, Nadia Wassef shares her experience in bookselling and surviving in this competitive market.

Nadia Wassef

On Friday March the 8th, 2002, coincidentally International Women’s Day, Diwan Bookstore opened its doors on an island in the middle of the river Nile surrounded by the Sahara Desert. Egypt’s first modern-style bookstore retailed books, music, films, stationery, and had a café at is heart that invited customers to prolong their experience—by sitting and browsing through whatever book caught their interest, meeting other readers, or simply being in a space that demanded nothing of them.

The beginning….

Here was an inventory of what the three women behind this endeavour—me, my sister, Hind, our friend and partner, Nihal—had: guts, dreams, our mothers’ prayers, and a blissful ignorance of what could go wrong. Here’s what we didn’t have: a warehouse, industry knowledge, revolving capital, and most importantly, a business plan.

The journey…

Ten years later, Diwan had ten shops, 150 employees, and was on the brink of financial ruin. Incidentally, by that time, we did have a business plan, but nothing went according to it.
Another ten years on, March 2022, Diwan—now downsized and reformulated—celebrated twenty years of survival with six stores, two trucks, two seasonal branches on Egypt’s north coast, and its new venture: Diwan Publishing.

Keys to survival…

Transformation, the capacity to adapt to the ever-changing and ever-challenging environments that interrupt our otherwise perfectly laid plans, is one of the keys to such survival. In Diwan’s case, over the last twenty years, we had to contend with a global financial crisis, a revolution, a counter-revolution, four currency devaluations—and a global pandemic.

What bookstores mean…

Bookstores have been dubbed many things: secular places of worship, shrines to knowledge, heartbeats of communities. I think of them as public places where personal quests unfold, commercial spaces where you don’t have to practise commerce, somewhere to escape the world, or engage more fully with it. But perhaps what we don’t think of bookstores as being, are characters, with personalities, and identities that shift over time. When we were conceptualizing Diwan, we were conscious of creating a brand with a purpose, a living being with a mission, open to change. When the graphic artist charged with designing Diwan’s logo asked us to describe our brand as if she were a person, we told her that she was a person, and this was her story:

Diwan was conceived as a reaction to a world that had stopped caring about the written word. Because her name can mean a collection of poetry in Persian and Arabic, a calligraphy script, a meeting place, a guest house, a sofa, and a title for high-ranking officials, she is different things to different people. She doesn’t like the binary world that surrounds her, and she is set on changing it, one book at a time. She believes that North and South, East and West are restrictive terms, so she offers books in Arabic, English, French, and German. She brings people and ideas together. Like a good host, she invites patrons to stay a while longer in her cafe?. She welcomes and respects others in all their differences. She makes book buying a joyful interactive experience. She cherishes her past and her many heritages, while using them as a springboard catapulting her into an exciting future.

Challenges faced…

In the early 2000s, because necessity is the mother of invention, we looked for ways to spread the word about Diwan, to tell existing and potential customers our news, but most importantly, to export our identity. We faced two challenges: we couldn’t afford traditional print and advertising media, and whatever minuscule budget we had, I had spent on beautifully crafted bags that featured our bold logo on a multi-layered background of typography and modernized Arabo-Islamic patterns in rich earth tones. Coated paper. German-imported glue. Sturdy black handles. No expense spared. As their appeal grew, the Diwan shopping bag became a cultural status symbol on the streets of Cairo, a signifier of a shared affinity, a love of reading, and a pride in cultural heritage. They then began travelling the globe. In later years, when I glimpsed one of our bags on a London street, or a New York subway, the feeling was electrifying. Registering their success, we chose to maximize it: we would release a new bag to announce an anniversary, the opening of a new store, to cast a light on Sufi poetry, long-forgotten writers, artists, or thinkers.

All these efforts were underpinned by, and in service of, the desire to highlight the importance and reintegration of the written word—reading—into the mainstream. The bags also shaped our marketing policy: Diwan never paid for above-the-line advertising. At first, it was because we couldn’t afford to, since the bags had decimated the little funds we had; then we started to realize that we could increase our reach by bartering book reviews and recommendations in print media in exchange for our logo’s presence.

By 2010, due to economic hardships, we could no longer afford the bags that had made up so much of our brand, of our identity, and our messaging. But as always, we found other ways.

What bookselling meant to us…

The export of our identities to our readers, customers, target audiences, through whichever means we can enlist, engenders a realization about the role of booksellers: we don’t just sell books; we strike up conversations. Bookselling is a dialogue, and as with every dialogue, there are those who drive it, participate in it, interrupt it, or simply eavesdrop on it. Booksellers transcend their job title, shifting between roles to act as guardians, matchmakers, and the devisers and detectors of trends. How? By learning from our books and our customers—which brings me to our next challenge: now that we’ve secured our customers’ attention, having got them, and the books through our doors, what are we going to do with it?

In Diwan, our book displays were a continuation of that conversation. It was no accident that I placed a stack of Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power next to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, or Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red next to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or Miral al-Tahawy’s Blue Aubergine next to Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat. I wondered if books would be received differently depending on where they were categorized? On a more practical level, I found myself arguing with my staff about the amount of space allocated to literature versus self-help books.

Which brings into sharp relief another reality, another struggle, that booksellers confront daily: as a bookseller, I had a duty to challenge and broaden readers’ horizons. As a business owner, I owed my partners and my balance sheet the greatest margins and the highest sales volumes that I could generate. As a passionate reader, I allowed myself the luxury of inhabiting the latitudes of love and hate. What you buy and what you promote, the space you allocate to it, speaks to who you are and what type of a personality your bookstore has; and it’s alright to be different.

Survival tactics…

At a time when customer service was rarely, if ever, a pillar of retail activity, Diwan placed a great deal of emphasis on readers and their experiences. Our greatest asset, as booksellers, isn’t the choices we make about which books we line our shelves with, but the people we choose to champion them. We recruited people with positive dispositions open to learning new things, and decided not to make knowledge of books or retail a prerequisite for eligibility. Then we went about training them. Our focus extended to the facilitation of a relationship—a bond, even—between readers and books: placing the book in their hands, suggesting another one, maintaining eye contact and avoiding turning their back to the customer.

Our new generation of booksellers fulfilled another vital function: the relay of information from shop floors to back offices, ensuring that the bookselling conversation was heard in different corners of the company. They reported back to buyers on what customers were looking for, they were the scouts who could tell the trends that were hatching, the mood on the shop floors, the product lines that could be removed, or receive less space, to make way for new ones. Through their interactions and observations, they facilitated Diwan’s survival and shaped her identity.

After more than a thousand years as the world’s most important form of written record, the book as we know it faces an unknown future. Just as paper superseded parchment, movable type put scribes out of a job, and the codex, or paged book, overtook the papyrus scroll, so computers and electronic books threaten the very existence of the physical book.

So why are books the outliers? Music and its retailers certainly didn’t survive the onslaught of the digital age, resulting in the merger of the product and its distribution—the digitized downloadable song. Books have endured because of the grit and resilience of booksellers who have managed to make themselves central to the process and, in so doing, protect and align themselves with the product they sell. Booksellers have also been integral in the creation of a community. While book signings and book launches aren’t newcomers to the bookselling arena, their relevance has grown.

Not only do they facilitate, if not create, the relationship between writers, their books, and readers, increasing each group’s exposure to the other, but they make material the immaterial—they turn consciousness, interaction, into community. They remind us of the shortcomings of the all too efficient digital world. If online bookselling is geared towards reducing friction—those things that make a transaction falter, like too many choices, too much thinking—the very act of buying a book is built on exactly that.

Another challenge that Diwan—like most booksellers, and retailers the world over who are bigger than a boutique but smaller than a superchain—faces is that of location. Where can we afford to exist? What does the limitation of space (the physical world) impose? For one thing, it forces us to focus and prioritize. We vary the product mixes, trying to find revenue streams that will protect and bolster our bookselling; we engage in different activities related to the book, such as publishing. We adapt and expand our spaces to be welcoming and inclusive of as many consumer groups as possible.

Conversely, what does an infinity of space (the virtual world) give, and take away from us in return? It furnishes us with the ability to showcase endless titles, while providing a transactional experience devoid of any other; ease and efficiency trump meaningfulness. Readers don’t meet other readers, laugh, talk, and exchange recommendations, while shopping for a book online. That interaction—which cannot be replicated on digital platforms—has saved bookstores from perdition. While many of you exist triumphantly in a virtual world through websites and similar vehicles of e-commerce, and others have adopted a hybrid model, few can deny the necessity of bricks-and-mortar stores. These third spaces are where communities are born and cemented, and where significant and impactful relationships between books and people come into being. Covid has accelerated the realization that the high street is under threat, and that malls may become the arena where experiential hybrids of the physical and the digital meet and morph. What does that mean for bookstores?

Our biggest challenge remains the uncertainty of the future. We require resilience. We need experimentation. Be aware of different experiments; try your own. Be aware that timing is just as important as hard work and good luck, and sometimes, we can be ahead of our time. We must innovate, but innovation has a cost, and that cost is borne by the innovator, not the imitator. Let me explain: when Diwan began, we were a pioneer in that we were the first modern-style bookstore in Egypt. Rather than horizontal market growth, we were faced with a vertical plunge: a war of price undercutting in an industry plagued by slim margins. So, my advice will always be to take the gamble of innovation. Develop your bookstore’s identity in an unexpected way, surprise yourself and your reader.

So how do we keep on going?

We need to celebrate and champion one another; get to know who we are and extol our differences. I have been inspired by some of the practices of the Scuola Per Librai Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri founded in 1983 which lend some room for positive emulation. Like them, we should give prizes for excellence and innovation in bookselling. Create opportunities for exchange—just as booksellers forge experiences for readers, so we must for one another. Invite a bookseller to come and work in your shop for a month, then go and work in theirs. We talk about cultural difference, but experiencing it is the only way of taking it out of the realm of talk into that of appreciation and understanding. We need to avoid the scarcity mindset; know that scarcity breeds scarcity, and imagining abundance brings it into being.

It is worth mentioning that at the lowest points during the years where Diwan’s survival was under threat, I started to believe that Diwan, my first born, then a teenager, had developed her own personality, and was rebelling against me, her own mother. She didn’t like my plans for her and she thwarted them at every turn. Our relationship has since improved because I have stopped to listen to what Diwan wants. Diwan has taught me that failure and success aren’t opposites, but friends locked in an embrace. Diwan continues to teach me that human relationships matter. People who enter bookstores are a special type of person, and they all have one thing in common—they want to know things about things, and about themselves. They have a personality, and they aren’t scared to develop it, just like your favourite bookstore…

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