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Bookworms are changing the world

We speak to people running two different initiatives in Dubai, both with a common cause

  • #BookHero is operational in Dubai Sports City.Image Credit: Montserrat Martin
  • A look at The Old Library.Image Credit: Sailakshmi P. S.
Gulf News

Dubai: At a time when ebooks and online retailers are becoming the norm, organisations in Dubai are standing up for the love of books, and giving back to society while they’re at it.

According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the state of the book industry as a whole was in jeopardy around 2011. There was fear that independent bookstores would be forced to close. However, in 2016, ABA reported a rise in the sale of books and independent stores were lauded for being a part of their community.

One such community initiative, located in Dubai Sports City, shifted its focus on spreading the love for reading. But, at the same time, their aim is to use the profits to give back to the community.

#BookHero, launched by Dubai resident Montserrat Martin, started by selling books for as little as Dh10 and is using the profits to help the Al Barsha Veterinary Clinic (ABVC) trap, neuter and release (TNR) stray cats. A thousand cats have been helped so far and given a new lease on life.

Martin told Gulf News: “Everyone is now passing on the responsibility to nonprofit organisations. They seem to be the only caring parties. But, we think differently. As a company, if we are making money, we are diverting it to support others. If everyone did a little extra on their part, we wouldn’t have to rely on non-profits so much.”

As the founder of another initiative, The Animal Project, Martin says that working with animals is a full-time job. In her experience, she has witnessed some terrible cases of animal abuse and is convinced that there is so much more that we, as a community, can do to help animals.

Apart from this, they also organised a book exchange programme in 2016, wherein educational books could be exchanged by school students free of cost.

Martin said: “If they brought 20 books, they could take 20 books in return. This extended the life of the books, promoted studying and made it easier for children to obtain knowledge. Some families are unable to afford the high school fees and our programme was a helping hand for them.”

Over 1,800 books were exchanged through this programme. However, the group has been unable to find an affordable space to convert it into a permanent feature.

During the programme, however, Martin came across a person who was working with refugees in Greece. Hearing their tales of how they were doctors and engineers in their home countries, and are now working as cleaners, Martin decided to help in a small way.

She said: “We thought we could offer them a window, through a book, to realise and understand that the world is not just limited to the refugee camp. We started sending them books for free. We are now trying to find an airline that is willing to take a thousand books every six weeks to the designated refugee camps.”

They also came up with a plan to start the first library in labour camps, ensuring that there was someone present there at all times to teach them the basics of English once a week. This would give the workers a chance to improve their second language. But, before they step into this venture, Martin wants to make sure that the other initiatives are moving on a regular basis.

A lot of people buy a book, read it and then bring it back. #BookHero accepts donations, but are unable to operate as a library. The used books are sold for Dh1, which allows them to make some money to pay the salaries of the employees and support their initiatives.

Martin said: “The company is entirely community oriented. But, we are vary of hiring volunteers because we need someone who is committed in the long run. People are very busy and if they are working full time and volunteering, only a few will do it from the heart.”

They have an initiative to give certificates to school children for community hours if they volunteer a certain number of hours with them.

Currently operating out of an installation in Dubai Sports City, #BookHero has 5,000 books up for grabs. They also have a moving truck, with 20,000 books on board and a warehouse space with 55,000 other titles.

The best feature about the store is that it’s open 24 hours a day. If you feel like reading a book at 4am, you can go and collect one yourself. They operate on a honour system, wherein each book has a price sticker and there’s a box where visitors can deposit money.

Martin said: “We live in a secure country and this is the best way to operate a community book store. If people take a book without paying because they cannot afford it, I would just be helping them. We are promoting honesty and want to believe that people wouldn’t steal the books.”

Another institution that’s bringing reading back, is The Old Library, established in Dubai in 1969, which is run entirely by volunteers. None of them are paid a salary and all funds raised through subscription, book fines and second-hand books sales are used to pay the management fee, for the daily upkeep of the library and purchasing new books. In 2006, the library was moved to the Dubai Community Theatre and Art Centre (Ductac) complex in the Mall of the Emirates.

Michele Sadoon, former chairperson of The Old Library, joined the team four years ago for the love of reading. She refers to it as a “fantastic place” where it is an honour for her to work with other like-minded individuals.

She told Gulf News: “It makes it so much easier to work together because we all love books. The women at the library are so committed, despite us all having different functions.”

Coincidentally, the six committee members and 50 volunteers are all women. As chairperson, Sadoon was responsible for hosting meetings, wherein decisions regarding the library’s upkeep were made. They also have a coordinator, trainer, treasurer, a person managing public relations and another managing rosters.

On a daily basis, the volunteers are expected to manage the loaning and returning of books, shelving them and answering any questions.

Sadoon said: “They all undergo training. When they first sign up, we show them the basics and give them an idea of what we do. Following that, they have to undergo four training sessions, each of four hours. They go on shift with the regular volunteers, help them and learn along the way.”

The library, which consists of around 25,000 books, is open to public between 10am to 6pm. The volunteers work in two shifts, 10am to 2pm and 2pm to 6pm, with at least three people working at the same time. Each person is expected to arrive 15 minutes before her shift begins to ensure the transition of duties is smooth.

Sadoon said: “The summer months, which are coming up soon, are a bit hard as we run short on the number of volunteers. Many people go on leave and others have to do double shifts to make up.”

Penny Mackenzie, senior volunteer at the library, has been working there for eight years. After moving to Dubai, she came across the library and knew that working there was something she would enjoy, as she loved to read.

She said: “I met so many people from all over the world, who were at different stages of their lives. But, they all had something in common — they loved to read and wanted to give back to society.”

Over the years, she has done a lot of different things and worked in different roles at the library. She first joined as a treasurer and today, she is content with her four-hour shifts where she gets to help members choose what to read.

She said: “I have a broad range of interests and it’s a lovely thing to give them advice. Having done this for so long, I have seen families grow and youngsters growing up.”

She hopes to continue doing what she does, because she feels she is contributing in a meaningful way.

Sailakshmi P. S., a volunteer at the library, has been working there for a little over three years. For her, going to work is the “best part” of her week.

She said: “I love the calmness of being around books, yet love the energy being with book-lovers gives me. Meeting readers who share their reviews and volunteers who share my passion for books is very humbling.”

She also performs all the duties of a volunteer, including ensuring the library is not messy and the books are in good shape. Some volunteers take on extra duties of buying books, cataloguing and sorting through donations.

She said: “We have a specific set of duties when opening and closing the library. We maintain a Day-Book that has updates of all that needs to be communicated with each other, unique queries, consignment deliveries and payment instructions. We all read this when we start work so we are updated with what has happened at the library in the last week or so.”

The library has a wide range of genres available for its members, including fiction, fantasy, classics, non-fiction, picture books, references and comics. A maximum of eight books can be borrowed by a member at any time, for a maximum of four weeks.

A lot of people approach them to donate books, but they are very particular about the books they accept. They have to be in very good condition and fairly recent. They then sell them for Dh2 each. If people are interested in joining the team of volunteers, they can approach them at the library and fill up a form. The training coordinator then gets in touch with them and organises a schedule for the training sessions.

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