Underground book market: Wilde, Dickens, low prices

Finding quality books for a reasonable price in Cairo can be a daunting task. And for those especially keen on collecting books, commercial outlets offer little consolation.

Throughout Cairo, numerous commercial bookstores, like Diwan and Shorouk, cater to specific markets on a strictly business basis. But the high prices and careful selection leave little room for book lovers to stumble upon something impressive and unique.

But there exist, in areas slightly off the beaten track, like Attaba and Sayeda Zeinab, a variety of small stores selling thousands of books. Finding a gem in the mass disorganization takes a little inspecting and digging, but it is the marginalized existence of these stores that has allowed for their charm and their treasures to grow.

Within the hustle and bustle of these two locations, there are certain stores that carry more than what first meets the eye, such as antique literature and offbeat subject material. Some store owners, like Mohamed Nageh (Sayeda Zeinab) and Bahaa Mohamed Hosam (Attaba), are book lovers who are fully aware of the value of their collections. Others, lucky for savvy book buyers, are not.

What makes a book valuable depends on price, subject, age, and author (and sometimes the whim of the seller). Value based on subject matter varies in different areas of the city, often reflecting the variety of Cairean belief systems and attitudes.

Because of the challenge of unearthing treasures and their subjective value, the beauty of the contents of these two locations might best be reflected through a few hours's worth of searching. Here’s what you might find:

Honore De Balzac’s “Complete Works”, printed 1874

Sitting unattended behind several six-foot-high piles of books in Sayeda Zeinab, was this Balzac wonder, a 25-volume, leather-bound collection in its original French. Some volumes are slightly worn, but others are in almost perfect condition. Based on internet sources, the complete works normally sell for around $US50 to $US1000 per book. Store owner Ahmed Abd al-Rahman offered a package deal: the entire collected works for LE25 per book.

Rumi Collector’s Set

This was a beautiful find in one of the cleaner stores in Attaba, placed randomly among some old Arabic magazines. This set includes a hardcover book with an extensive, absorbing introduction to Rumi himself, as well as some of the poet’s finest work. Certain excerpts are printed on colored cards, which can serve as a “thought for the day”. Each card correlates to a chapter in the book. The set was in perfect condition, and sells for US$60 on At Attaba, it sold for LE18.

National Geographic Magazines

Both Sayeda Zeinab and Attaba are home to hundreds of bright yellow National Geographic magazines, both old and new. At first you might wonder who would want to read outdated magazines, but the firsthand accounts they give of past events — from natural disasters to the moon landing — are great history lessons, and the beautiful photos don’t hurt. The oldest one dates back to 1958, with pretty much every following monthly issue available. The magazines sell for for LE2 each, or LE0.5 each if you get a whole bunch.

Charles Dickens, 1920 Leather-bound Classics

In Bahaa Mohamed Hosam’s store in Attaba, there were four Charles Dickens novels in almost perfect condition. The four novels, including “A Tale of Two Cities”, were printed in 1920 and were leather-bound hardcovers. They were a little pricey, at LE50 each or LE40 for a package deal, but online each one sells for US$90.

Nanotechnology Textbooks

The fact that nanotechnology textbooks are sitting in mint condition in the middle of Sayeda Zeinab might catch a shopper off guard. Nanotechnology is one of the most specialized and advanced fields of physics in the world, and finding books on such subject material is pretty much impossible in Egypt. However, one store had several of these books, and despite being priced at US$80, he was selling them for LE50.

Naguib Mahfouz’s “Children of the Alley”

“Children of the Alley” is not a rarity or obscurity (although it was banned in Egypt), but this brand new copy was selling for only LE8; at Diwan, where Mahfouz is widely sold, it costs LE100. As with thousands of other books just like it — gently used — it sells for 10 percent of the asking price in commercial bookstores.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, 1948

In a single leather-bound volume, printed in 1948, this beautiful book was in Mohamed Nageh’s store in Sayeda Zeinab. This volume, with its beautiful cover and historical significance, has a slightly torn spine and was being sold for LE50.

The existence of these bookstores in both Attaba and Sayeda Zeinab represents the ideal essence of literature and booktrading. And although certain shop keepers, such as Mohamed Nageh and Bahaa Mohamed Hossam, understand their position in providing an unparalleled service to society, it is difficult to keep from being amazed by the existence of such places. It seems like the marginalization and division of Egyptian socio-economic sectors, which has caused much controversy and concern over the past 50 years, has paved the way for an underground tradition that represents an ideal book trading culture.

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