A home made of pages and words.
The fragrance of old books and coffee wafts through the cosy, warm bookstore, Bookends, nestled away in Dubai Silicon Park, started by two close friends, Grace Karim and Somia Anwar.
The bookstore, which opened six months’ ago, is covered with brightly coloured murals of books toppling over. The other wall has the words ‘Once Upon A Time’. The two friends are very excited to explain the story of the murals before anything else; they laugh and chuckle as they stand around next to the paintings. They pose in front of the wall, pretending to hold up the books, and later ‘step’ into the fairytale. “This was done by a university student,” says Karim, a Lebanese expatriate. The concept is simple: Be swarmed by books.
The artistry doesn’t end there. On entering the bookstore, I noticed the curious formation of books by the window, which was in the shape of a question mark. As I’m told, it was constructed by Anwar’s husband. The designs will keep changing: Earlier there was a chandelier of books, hanging from the ceiling. “For Christmas, we placed books in the form of a tree,” Karim explains. Gesturing to the new formation, she says, “This will stay for another six months, and we try something new.”
As you walk a few paces, you see ‘the counter of lost pages’. At first glance, you also believe they’re stacks of books under the cash counter. However, Karim and Anwar had something else in mind. “Many of the books that we collected, had so many missing pages, or were badly worn out. So we took the books, and cut them, and put the inside pages on the wall,” explains Anwar, a Pakistani expat. Some of the pages are etched on the wall. “People like to come and read the pages on the walls,” she says.
“This is home for us,” says Karim, contentedly.
And they start explaining how this little nook became a home.
For the love of business and for the love of books
Two different women, brought together by the love for business and books.
The mothers of two kids, each, begin to tell me their story, of how this bookstore became home. Settling down on the colourful assortment of cushions on the floor, Anwar starts first. “I wouldn’t call myself a book-lover actually. I just had more of a passion to start a woman-led business,” she says. The daughter of a businessman, she laughs as she says that business is in her blood.
She arrived in the UAE from Pakistan in the 1990s, when she was just 18 years old. She thought that she was just going to study here, however the universe had different plans in store. Instead, she settled here and got married too.
At this point, she took a pause and told Karim to tell her tale. For Karim on the other hand, books were a form of escape; a relief for the soul during politically turbulent times back home in Lebanon. Recalling how she would sit and read books in shelters she says, “My father always made sure that I had something in my hand to read. I love books, and I need to read,” she says.
Contrary to Anwar, Karim arrived in the UAE back in 2002 without any plans to start a business. She just wanted to raise her children here and be a housewife. With a wry smile and laugh, she provides a little anecdote on why she chose the UAE. “My in-laws are from the UK, which is very cold. They came to Lebanon, and didn’t want to be there. So we decided to come to the UAE for a year, as the environment would suit them better. And that was 22 years ago,” she says. Later, Karim took up volunteering and then teaching, something she loathed at first, and which later became a fulfilling profession for her. Years later, she ran into Anwar, as their children went to the same school.
While waiting for their children, they would have coffees and discuss bookstores and the prices of books in the UAE. Like normal friends, they would just keep musing over abstract ideas of starting a bookstore for second-hand books, but they didn’t take it forward. Their first attempt at working together, was gathering books from parents in school and starting quick volunteering stalls. However, this was not sustainable, as they realised. “If we continued like this, with just taking books from our car or setting it up on the roof of our car, we would just have back pain,” adds Anwar.
And then one day, the perfect opportunity presented itself.
The competition that set the ball rolling
“What I love most about Grace Karim is that she is always ready. She says yes to anything, without even listening to the full thing,” says Anwar, as she recalls how their plans for the bookstore materialised.
One day, the two mothers after dropping their kids off for basketball, had an idea. Anwar had read about a three-day entrepreneurial pitch competition in Sharjah and was excited. She told Karim about this, who apparently said yes without even listening to all the details. “The next morning, she asks me, ‘What did I say yes to?’” smiles Anwar. It's clear, Karim just has strong faith in Anwar’s plans, drive and energy: She doesn’t need to even know the full story. There’s always a good idea unfolding between the two of them.
Her “sale pitch” to Karim was, three days “without kids, and husband”, and to just be with each other, and relax. “I told her that we would just have fun for three days,” recalls Anwar.
They walked cheerfully to the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre to register, where they were told that they just “had one minute” to pitch their concept, to make the initial list. This was a stepping stone ahead of the three-day fiesta. Nevertheless, the two of them countered their anxiety, gave a pitch for the plans of a second-hand bookstore, and were successfully shortlisted.
They were ready for their three days of fun, where they spent time discussing their children, and looking up videos and photos. They were sure that everyone else saw them as motherly, as both Anwar and Karim would get into conversations with excited youngsters and ask them maternal questions, such as whether they had eaten lunch. They meticulously prepared their pitch at night, and won. “I don’t think anyone expected that the two mums would be the ones to win. But this win gave us motivation and validation,” says Anwar.
The dream had to become a reality now: They could no longer be building bookstores in the air. And so by February, 2020, they started building a website from scratch, collecting books from people they knew, especially mothers, who wanted to give their kids’ books away. They started in “the reverse” manner Anwar explained; they went digital first before setting up the actual bookstore. “We started from zero books, because I don’t sell my books,” says Karim flatly.
Anwar took a pause from explaining their story and decided to prove Karim’s statement, while the two laughed over the memory. When they were setting up the bookstore, an enthusiastic Karim thought she would bring in her books too, as a form of showcase. She had no intention of selling them: They were just meant to add to the aesthetic appeal of the store. “People would come and ask about her books, and we would have to say, they are not for sale,” recalls Anwar. “I finally had to tell Grace, look, this not working out. We can’t keep books that we won’t sell,” she says. So, a rather reluctant Karim took her books back home.
Returning to their tale, Anwar continued explaining how they were flooded with books as soon as they launched. They drove to people’s houses, collecting books from the doorstep. “At first, our focus was on children’s books,” she explains. However, they started receiving all kinds of books, from self-help to mysteries, thrillers and books in different languages, including, French, Arabic and Malayalam.
“Everyone kept telling that books are a dying industry, but we didn’t listen. I’m glad that we didn’t. People love actual books, and the charm of a physical book is not replaceable by any electronic item,” says Karim.
How homebound people, during the pandemic, fueled the need for books
Despite the popularity, it wasn’t such a cakewalk to set up an online bookstore. There were difficulties in securing a bank account for a small startup, says Anwar, calling it a tough learning experience. Moreover, they were operating on a limited budget and the profit margins were low.
At first, it seemed as if Covid-19 would just fuel the difficulties. The pandemic struck in March 2020. At first, Karim wondered if they should take a step back. Who would buy the books? However, their little store were solace to people.
Ironically, people, sitting at home, wanted books to read, says Karim. They didn’t stop receiving orders, and so the two of them would carefully sanitise each book before delivering it to customers. “People wanted an escape, and books were an escape. So, we just kept delivering,” says Karim. Gradually, people expressed their desire to see an actual bookstore, where they could browse.
People have expressed gratitude to this team of two for reigniting their reading habits during the pandemic. “Although our focus is on the UAE, we've shipped books worldwide,” says Anwar. “Once, a customer from Australia purchased a cookbook priced at AED5, yet paid 50 dollars for shipping alone. When asked about its significance, he shared a sentimental story: the book held immense value as it reminded him of cooking moments with his grandmother, making it priceless to him,” she says.
And so, six months ago, they set up the bookstore, that is now filled with over 20,000 books. It’s also a center for book club meetings, book signings for local authors, and ‘bookish’ game carnivals for children, where the children have to guess the name of a book. “Occasionally, we also do movie nights,” says Karim.
Staying friends and business partners
There's always lingering laughter around them. "We're very loud, we know," laughs Anwar, referring to how she wonders whether the nearby shops can hear them.
The two friends are different - like chalk and cheese, but they know how to make it work. It’s their differences that also bring them together, and create a synergy, as they explain. “Business success hinges on the team; we embody a cohesive unit in every sense,” they say. It takes one look to see the deep respect that they have towards each other; a sisterhood and friendship that has been built for over the past eight years.
“Our different skills and expertise just complement each other,” says Anwar. They’re those kind of friends who are able to complete each other’s sentences, and one usually says something that makes the other dissolve in peals of laughter. “Throughout this journey, we’ve just supported and understood each other’s boundaries. We’re mothers and wives, and we also have learnt how to chase our aspirations, while fulfilling the many roles we play in our lives,” adds Anwar.