Historic Cairo bookshop struggles to cope with changing times

Fadi Emir Greis, co-owner of the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop.

As it marks 89 years since its establishment, Cairo’s Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop finds itself struggling in a different world.
When it opened its doors in 1928, the bookshop was the first of its kind in the whole Arab region.
“This was the first bookshop in the region to import foreign books from England and other European countries,” said Fadi Emir Greis, a grandchild of the bookshop found­er and now its owner. “Foreign cul­ture was much in demand then.”
At the time, Egypt was occupied by the British, and the British expa­triates living in the country, along with Egypt’s Anglophile cultural elite, wanted a bookstore to cater to their needs.
Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop found­er Sobhi Greis had just finished high school when he decided to start this business but he saw a niche in the market. He started importing books from England and other Eu­ropean countries and quickly made his fortune.
Apart from wealth, Greis turned his bookshop into a mecca for Egypt’s and the Arab world’s most important cultural and political fig­ures. His clients included Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi, Egyptian cul­tural renaissance figure Taha Hus­sein and Nobel Literature Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
For years, Greis and his bookstore provided writers, poets and intel­lectuals with a window into the Western world.
“These were times when every­thing was different: The culture, the people and economic condi­tions, too,” Fadi Emir Greis said. “There was huge demand for Eng­lish-language books that enabled my grandfather and my father after him to make a big name.”
Fadi Emir Greis inherited the bookshop from his grandfather and his father but not their fortunes. Demand for foreign-language books declined, just as demand for books in print in general has dropped.
Sitting in bookstore, surrounded by books — the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop has approximately 40,000 in stock — Fadi Emir Greis said he eyes the future with concern.
When they took over, Fadi and his younger brother, Kareem, were keen to keep the place as is. The almost-century-old floor and ceil­ing of the bookshop are the same as their grandfather built them, the shelves are untouched.
The Anglo-Egyptian bookshop is divided into three levels, includ­ing a basement where thousands of important Arabic language books are kept. Foreign books in all fields can be found on the ground floor and the top floor of the bookshop is dedicated to meetings and study.
Linking the ground floor with the basement is a creaky ancient wood­en staircase. The journey from the ground floor to the basement is like a journey back in time, between two different cultures or two differ­ent worlds.
The brothers said they were aware they were seeking to preserve a great legacy, although it is a less fortunate legacy than that enjoyed by their father and grandfather.
“This bookshop was the only destination for researchers, men of letters and booklovers throughout most of the 20th century,” Kareem Greis said. “But things are changing dramatically.”
The internet is killing the book industry and in Egypt, which suf­fers massive post-revolutionary economic hardships, few people are ready to scrap their basic needs to buy books. Most of the books can be pirated online, which is further suf­focating bookselling as a business.
A decision by the Egyptian cen­tral bank to free float the pound last year almost doubled the exchange rate of the US dollar and, conse­quently, the prices of imported books.
But the Greis brothers said they are not ready to stand idly by and watch the cultural empire built by their grandfather and father crum­ble. They are seeking ways to rein­vent the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop, including uploading books online and offering readers the chance to peruse their entire online back cat­alogue for a small fee.
They are beginning a new ini­tiative to encourage people to read out-of-print books — reprinting edi­tions for a new audience. In addi­tion to this, a department offering home deliveries will seek to take ad­vantage of the online phenomenon.
“The world is changing and we must change with it,” Fadi Emir Greis said. “We have inherited a precious centre of culture from our grandfather and father but it needs to be presented to the world in a new light or it can be forgotten forever.”
Ahmed Meghid
is an Egyptian reporter based in Cairo.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.