Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller


Shelf Life is an unembellished and lyrical memoir of the origins of Cairo's largest bookstore/cafe/meeting place, Diwan, by Nadia Wassef, one of Diwan's founders. Due out 5th Oct 2021 from Macmillan on their Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint, it's 240 pages and will be available in hardcover, audio, and ebook formats. 

This is a straightforward memoir, warmly retold in an honest and accessible manner which crosses cultures and barriers and draws the reader into the narrative. It's also an impressive story of two sisters, their co-originator, and their circle of friends, who defied cultural (and legal) norms to open a bookstore as a cultural meeting place for information and the exchange of ideas at a time and in a place where there weren't so many options for women working outside their homes or family businesses. 

The author does a very good job of explaining some of the problems they encountered and the creative ways they were forced to invent to solve them. One example, early on in the book, was that at the time in Egypt, most domestic books didn't have ISBNs which made keeping track of sales and inventory more than problematic. She discusses the ramifications of theft, irate customers, irate and unreliable suppliers, and indifferent or actively antagonistic governmental machinery almost perfectly developed to make independent booksellers' lives more difficult and frustrating.

Despite the hurdles, Diwan's success and expansion are related with grace, humor, and wit. It's a very personable tale, well told. I enjoyed reading about the small details, such as how they decided which way to set up their flagship store (the original store), and why the cafe and book areas are located in the way they are. In the age of massive online retailers, the descriptions of the physical bookstore and cafe made me nostalgic for the days when I could pick up a stack of books and magazines, pay for them, and spend an afternoon in the cafe (of our local Barnes & Noble) sipping tea and reading.

The language was more abrasive and rough than I had expected from a bookseller memoir. At some points, the cursing (mostly "f-bombs") came across as posturing and unnecessary. I found the inclusion less honest and more an attempt to be trendy and tough. 

The audiobook version of Shelf Life has a run time of 7 hours and 5 minutes and is expertly narrated by Vaneh Assadourian. My facility with Arabic is almost completely nonexistent, but I was impressed with the narrator's pronunciation and reading on the included Arabic words. The musical emphasis and phrasing were beautiful to listen to and added a lot to the read overall. Additionally, she has a rich warm alto voice which is pleasant to hear. 

Four stars. A good choice for library acquisition, readers who enjoy memoir and culture, and the audio version would make a nice commute read. 

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.

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