Thursday, 20 February 2014

Leila Books / مكتبة ليلى

Leila Books is a secret. It has no shopfront, and indeed no shop in the traditional sense. There is no indication of its presence anywhere in Qasr al-Nil street, or even in the entrance of the building that also houses the Embassy of the Central African Republic. The only outward sign of its existence is the brass plaque pictured above, a little larger than a sheet of A4.

And yet, despite its inconspicuous exterior, Leila Books is arguably the most important academic book dealer in Egypt (ما شاء الله! - وحصوة ملح في عين الحسود), and Egypt's largest exporter of Arabic books to University Libraries in Europe and North America. Indeed, Leila Books is one of only two companies in the Middle East which specialize exclusively in sales to western academic libraries (the other one being Suleiman's Bookstore in Beirut). In case you were wondering, no, they don't really accept private customers, ... unless you were planning to build a substantial private library, of course.

Leila Books didn't start out as an export-oriented business, however. On the contrary, when the business was founded in 1960, by the aunt of the present owner, it was specialized in importing foreign-language university textbooks, mainly in the sciences. Some years later, the Egyptian government imposed restrictions on the transfer of hard currency abroad. Unable to wire payment for its imports, Leila Books offered to exchange Arabic books as a payment in kind. This turned out to be a success, and became their new line of business.

Eventually, Leila Books' reputation as academic bookseller and subscription agent grew, and they acquired several national libraries, and large university libraries as clients. They cooperate closely with the Library of Congress, act as agent for the IFAO, and have customers as far away as Japan. They operate several large approval plans, fill periodical subscriptions, and handle what must be a formidable number of firm orders (if I can extrapolate from my own dealings with them).

By standards of the book trade, Leila Books is a large operation. All the processes of this little Amazon are crammed into two small apartments on the second floor of their building. What strikes the visitor to their premises is the silence that reigns these offices, even early in the morning, as Leila Books' staff go about their routine tasks. One gets the impression that this is a military operation, not an ordinary office, that runs like a well-oiled clockwork. The company employs cataloguers, acquisitions specialists, procurers (who scour the market for new publications), packers, and even someone who carries out the mind-numbing task of checking each book for misprinted or blank pages.

Now who is behind all of this? Well, the mastermind of this secret operation is ...

... er, no, it's George Fawzi, proprietor and manager of Leila books. He travels widely to promote his business and services, and attendees at MELA, MESA, MELCOM and other regular conferences have the opportunity to meet him in person. He is not what one would describe as a 'bookish' person, the type of angelic, grandfatherly, and charmingly incoherent antiquarian bookseller that one sees in films -- far from it: George is a businessman with an acute sense of opportunity, and great organizational talent. He can also be a very charming interlocutor over lunch at one of the nearby haunts like the Riche, or the Estoril.

I guess the secret of Leila Books is out (I hope you don't mind, George) ... and I have to get back to reviewing the new title lists which I receive from them. Stimulating the Egyptian economy ....