Somia Anwar and Grace Karim's start-up took off with just 50 books in January. They now have 1,400 books on their site with another 500 tittles waiting to be uploaded Image Credit: Supplied

Sabah Bardhan first came across Bookends.ae while scrolling on a social media platform. A book lover, she quickly went online and within minutes had bought 12 pre-loved books for herself and eight for her kids. A day later, the books landed up at her doorstep. ‘I found lots of interesting titles. The condition of the books is superb, most of them are as good as new. Cash on delivery and their quick delivery arrangement is the cherry on the cake,’ says the Dubai-based Sabah.

Sabah is not alone. Tasneem Rajkotwala also from Dubai is enjoying the fact that she can get pre-owned books delivered to her doorstep at bargain prices. ‘For me nothing compares to the smell and feel of reading an old book. Passing on a book that has been read gives it a new meaning and a life of its own. Bookends has definitely created a sustainable community of readers in the country,’ she says.

The branchild of Sharjah residents Somia Anwar and Grace Karim, Bookends.ae is an online portal that allows users to buy and sell pre-loved books.

‘Our initial idea was a book café,’ says Somia. But as they went scouting for locations the exorbitant rents forced them to scale down their plans. The next best option was a mobile book van. It turned out to be a great idea, but one that involved back-breaking work for the friends ferrying books to and fro from book sales.

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Finally, after countless meetings, brainstorming sessions and many cups of coffee over a span of five years, their dream took shape as Bookends.ae.

‘It was the most beautiful culmination of our ideas and dreams – we saved on rental space, went the sustainable route as books can be reused and got a modern concept that works well with all,’ say Grace and Somia.

Today Bookends is a one-of-a-kind, fast-growing digital platform for buying and selling pre-owned books in the UAE.

Even as we are chatting Grace receives a message from a potential client to list 65 books for sale. ‘Book owners contact us to post their used books on the website. Once their books are sold, they can use the credit to purchase books from our site. Or they can take the money earned from the sale as cash. Anyone can buy secondhand books from the site. We deliver all across UAE,’ explain the duo who generate funds to sustain their dream project by adding a service charge on each book sold.

For most people one of the most obvious benefits of buying used books is that they are affordable. A rule followed to the tee at Bookends where prices generally range from Dh5 to Dh20. Although the seller decides the price of their books the Bookends team usually advises them to quote for half the original cost of the book, says Somia, 39.

The success of the business, say Somia and Grace, reaffirms the joy of reading a real book even with the boom in digital reading mediums Image Credit: Supplied

Closer home for Grace and Somia, their kids’ voracious reading habits proved to be the catalyst in understanding the need for a market for affordable used books in the UAE. ‘I used to buy books for my kids worth a few hundred dirhams at book stores and by the time we reached home they used to read up most of them in the car. I struggled to keep refreshing their book collection in inexpensive ways,’ says Somia, whose daughter Zoha is 14 and son Abdullah is 12. Instead of buying new titles the easier alternative Somia discovered was book swapping, a practice that sowed the seed for a friendship and eventually a business partnership with Grace.

Mom to Omar, 18, and Adam, 12, Grace, 47, too was finding it tough to meet the needs of her own bookworms. ‘As Adam and Abdullah are classmates and loved reading we used to meet often to swap books at first, which cemented a friendship. Along the way we discovered our own passion for reading and felt we should reach out to the book lovers’ community in the country,’ recalls Grace.

Pursuing parallel teaching careers the mumpreneurs have their hands full. While Grace is a cover teacher for Arabic in multiple schools, Somia is a visiting faculty in American University of Sharjah. Incidentally, both of them have also managed businesses enterprises in the past. Grace owned an online shopping mall in Lebanon and Somia was the managing director of an apparel firm in the UAE. But they both admit that their book store dream would not have happened had they not spotted an ad for an entrepreneurship pitch competition.

The first chapter of their firm was drafted in Sharjah. Hosted by the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa), a three-day start-up event last October 31 to November 2 called for ideas to support digital content in the publishing space. ‘Up until then we had not thought of taking our bookstore idea online. But it seemed to be the best way to realise our plans. We had only 60 seconds to pitch our idea at the boot camp,’ recalls Grace.

The start-up event offered them access to workshops with mentors who guided them towards converting their idea into a viable product. At the event they inhaled the sweet smell of success securing the third prize with a start-up fund of Dh25,000. ‘It took us another two months to get the site operational and by January we launched Bookends with some 50 books,’ reveals Somia.

Today they have around 1,400 books on their site with another 500 tittles waiting to be uploaded. ‘We do everything on our own from our office in Sheraa. The only aspect that is outsourced is the delivery,’ adds Grace.

In just a few months of its launch Bookends has received overwhelming support from readers across the country. People contact them on Whatsapp and Instagram. ‘Most of our repeat customers are mums as children not only outgrow their books but also devour them fast. Our most in demand titles are the Harry Potter series, Wimpy Kid and Horrid Henry,’ points out Grace. Besides being affordable the site also helps people who are struggling with shelf space. When a buyer chooses books on the site, they can opt to buy a large number of books over a period of time and pay shipment only once. In addition, the sustainable model helps to reduce, reuse and recycle.

‘The more the same book keeps coming back on the platform, the more we are leaving a positive impact on the environment. New books are also expensive. In future we hope whenever people think of buying books they will consciously click on Bookends,’ says Somia, who works flexi hours at the university and devotes the rest of her day to the venture.

The success of Bookends, say its founders, reaffirms the joy of reading a real book even with the boom in digital reading mediums and other visual distractions. ‘People still enjoy the feel and ease of reading a book. They realise how books can shape their minds, teach them many new things, let them relive experiences of their favourite characters and enable them to travel the world from their cosy sofas,’ says Grace.

Growing up during war-torn times in her homeland Lebanon, young Grace too had found quiet refuge in her books. On days there was uncertainty over school schedules she would bury herself in her favourite Arabic, French and English novels. ‘Books were an escape in those trying times. We used to stay in shelters and when everyone around me would play cards to kill time, I used to read quietly in a corner,’ she reveals.

Somia’s life in Pakistan too had revolved around books. She recalls diving into fast-paced mystery series reading and rereading piles of Nancy Drews and Sidney Sheldons. Now she loves books on business and self-help, a passion that she is putting into use learning to manage Bookends. ‘Like the name of our site we hope to support booklovers with a wide range of books, delivered to their homes at their convenience. No better time to read books than in quarantine. We make sure to disinfect all our books,’ she adds.

Clearly, book lovers are thrilled.

Raneem Ali Maali, a teenager in Sharjah, has become a big fan. ‘I bought five books and am looking forward to get more particularly during these times,’ she says.

Sabah, a passionate reader finds it convenient that the books on the portal are well-organised. ‘One of the best things about the site is that the books are well-organised in various categories and according to age groups so it’s easy to browse them,’ says Sabah.

‘I am an avid reader and it was always a matter of concern paying exorbitant prices for new books at bookstores. The books on Bookends.ae are reasonably priced between Dh10 and 20. The best thing is that I do not have to drive to a store. My books get delivered straight to my doorstep for a small fee.’

And what’s more, readers feel they are doing their bit for the environment too.

‘The sustainability factor is high as the books come wrapped in newspaper and not fancy packaging. That’s so thoughtful,’ says Sabah.