With the Sharjah International Book Fair in full swing, writes Roger Tagholm, visitors may like to head to the waterfront to sample the Al Rawi bookshop and cafe
Sharjah has a stylish new bookshop and café on the city's Al Majaz waterfront, with a terrace that affords glorious views across to the Hilton and Al Majaz island, and a cleverly designed interior that can be adapted according to requirements. Called Al Rawi, meaning "the one who tells stories", it is an appealing combination of a carefully curated selection of books alongside a café and restaurant, all contained within a flexible, creative space. It is the UAE's version of what is happening in the US and UK - an inviting and inventive answer to the online onslaught, a demonstration of how bricks and mortar retail can offer an experience that online cannot replicate.
Al Rawi is owned by Tetra, the Sharjah-based private management company that also owns the sophisticated Shababeek Lebanese restaurant in Al Qasba, Sharjah's little Venice. Tetra manager Zhora Qureshi says: "The idea behind Al Rawi is to create a space that caters to Sharjah's savvy reading culture. Sharjah's Al Majaz Waterfront is a hidden gem, a great place to create a community hub for everyone to explore. The shop combines both culinary and literary interests under one roof, so we offer workshops for barista brewing every weekend and also host book launches."
The selection of books is eclectic. Browsers may find Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chris Anderson's TED Talks, Jojo Moyes' The Last Letter from Your Lover, Robin Sharma's Life Lessons from the Monk Who Sold his Ferrari, Insta poet Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey, and Dan Brown's Origin (which mentions Sharjah following his standing-room only visit to the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2014).
There are many cookbook titles too, from familiar names to UK visitors like Jamie Oliver and Nadiya Hussain, winner of the Great British Bake Off TV series, to Katrina Meynink's Bistronomy: French Food Unbound and Barbara Abdeni Massaad's Soup for Syria. It is a shop full of surprises and suggestions, of tempting face-out displays: exactly what you want in a retail space.
"During the pre-opening of Al Rawi, we drew up a list of books which we believed customers would enjoy reading and are currently seeking in the market," explains Qureshi. "We wanted to cater to all minds, ranging from lovers of romantic fiction to thrill seekers, explorers and cooks, as well as those who simply love to read and learn."
The team also came up with a clever marketing idea. "We believe that we all should explore beyond our comfort zone," Qureshi adds. "So at Al Rawi, we will be hosting an event called "Blind Date with a Book", where the idea is that the reader won't be able to see the title of the book, only six descriptive words written on the wrapping paper. If the words entice them, they can unwrap and explore a new genre."
There are innovations in design and display, too. Instead of fixed, interior walls, the store has moveable book shelving that can create little rooms. There are hanging lights with lampshades that are open books, as if to pour forth the light of knowledge. Retail "pods" on casters are used to display books, stationery and book-related merchandise, and Dubai-based designers Pallavi Dean Interiors has added numerous book-related touches. For example, the woven texture of the handrails and space dividers is based on the stitching that binds books, and the pattern on the custom-made tables relates to books and printed words.
Al Rawi wants to be a creative hub. It hosts numerous workshops from creative writing to "Zentangle" - a combination of art and meditation - and even workshops on how to sculpt food. In October the celebrated Australian chef Greg Malouf, whose Lebanese parents set him on the path to perfecting his own take on Middle Eastern cuisine, launched his new book Sugar in Al Rawi with a ticketed dinner.
The shop is a pilot project, though the hope is for further stores in the future. Qureshi says: "Bookstores have been dwindling in numbers, and the business model is not as lucrative, with large competitors and e-commerce businesses. I do believe that we are living in the age of technology and we can't ignore the fact of online sales." So Al Rawi fills web orders, too. But Qureshi adds: "In the end, people still love the feeling of picking up a book and finding a calm and cozy place to read it - I believe the age of coffee bookshops is upon us."
The Sharjah International Book Fair runs until 10 November.
This article first appeared in A World of Words, the Sharjah International Book Fair preview from Publishers Weekly and BookBrunch.