Twenty-two years ago, British expat Ruth Kiernan started off with 20 boxes of books and an idea in her home in Jumeirah. She would sort the books on the living-room floor and store them in her hallway. Together with her partner, Simon Cory-Wright, she wanted to share the joy of reading with children and parents in the community.
The spark of doing “something special” emerged when Ruth managed organise the first school book fair in 1999. “We had the books on four ping-pong tables and, despite the fact that a Shamal was raging, we were greeted by enthusiastic children and their parents desperate to buy our books,” she says. That’s how the humble “Bookworm” began its journey and more than two decades later this homegrown business is a household name in Jumeirah. In fact, it is the perfect example that proves “local bookstores inspire a community”.
“Over the years we have seen many changes,” says Ruth. “Dubai has gone from a sandy, little port town to the busy, shiny city it is today. My own children grew up and were educated in Dubai. Often a Saturday morning treat involved going to Magrudy’s to spend pocket money, followed by an ice cream from Baskin Robbins. The Magrudy’s shop was like a treasure trove – downstairs, my children would pour over the books, plotting which we should purchase next. To be honest, in those days, the range wasn’t extensive, but it was filled with a wondrous selection of titles. I still have books by Jill Murphy, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl - to name but a few from that shop in Jumeirah. Upstairs was home to an eclectic array of goods ranging from school, ballet and ladies’ shoes, knitting wool, underwear, ornaments, sewing patterns and so many more treasures. It’s such a fond memory for my children.”
Time has passed too quickly, she admits. “It is only when I look back and reminisce I realise how much of my life has been spent here and how much Dubai has changed.
Getting Gen Tech to read
Ruth and Simon now welcome a whole new generation of bookworms -- children who are growing up in a digital age, fed on gadgets and the Internet of Things. Getting the Gen Tech or post-millennials to read has its ups and downs, observes Kiernan. “It has had both positive and negative effects for the book industry. It’s now far easier for authors to stay connected to their readers but there are so many more distractions for our children. However, I still get a buzz from the look on a child’s face, whether at a book fair, or in one of our shops, when they choose their own book. The sense of anticipation of choosing and reading a new story will never become outdated and is a joy to behold. Cultivating this love of books is what The Bookworm is all about,” she says.
Looking back, Dubai’s rapid growth has brought much change for the Jumeirah community, says Ruth. “The famous Park ‘n’ Shop complex was demolished, which unfortunately included our beloved flagship store. Simon and I were heartbroken to see this local landmark - the home of many fond memories for us and Dubai-rooted families - crushed to the ground.”
The idea of uprooting wasn’t easy. Added to that the coronavirus pandemic brought new challenges, forcing The Bookworm to close all physical aspects of its business. “In particular, the closure of schools and a move to online teaching meant that the school book fairs, that The Bookworm is famous for, were postponed indefinitely. It was really difficult to keep going and I think we considered hanging up our book-selling hats,” admits Ruth.
Opening doors once again
But with the encouragement of their families, staff and loyal customers, Ruth and Simon began to tackle the challenges. “And slowly we began to feel excited about the future again. We pivoted online, through the website of our friends at Eggs and Soldiers, offering free delivery across the UAE.” The Bookworm now sits proudly in the Al Ferdous Complex. “It was fantastic to welcome everyone back to our new Jumeirah shop and we have been delighted to see so many old and new faces. Since reopening, we have introduced new features like our story-time yoga session,” says Ruth.
Despite not being digital natives, Ruth and Simon have adapted fast to changing business needs. “We are running virtual book launches from the shop. Anyone familiar with either Simon or I will know that we are absolute dinosaurs but, fortunately, our children have stepped in and helped in so many ways. I have received tremendous support from the community and grown stronger through the challenges Covid-19 has presented.”
“Jumeirah truly values its independent book shop and no matter what challenges life might throw at us I am very glad to be on this bumpy ride with you all,” adds Ruth.