The idea that a bookshop is just a bookshop is more than a little reductive. Bookshops are places of infinite possibility, where whole worlds, real and imagined are stacked row upon row, layer upon layer for our discovery. At their best, they function as a chrysalis, all that knowledge and potential opportunity ready to be set free as the pages unfurl. It’s all too easy to forget that literature, when done well, is art of a sort, and art, as we know, has transformative power: an ability to turn the mundane into the sublime, to encourage the most mouse-like of readers to develop a lion’s roar.
Or they should. Sometimes in Dubai it can feel a little more like the books are an afterthought, something to squeeze in between the rows of miniature dolls and cartoon backpacks. And, even then, they have a tendency towards the – how to put this politely? – popular. Quite how Rhonda Byrnes’ The Secret has remained at the top of Dubai’s bestseller lists for so long is a mystery as unfathomable as the book is inane. So it was with certain scepticism that Time Out greeted reports that Kinokuniya, the famed Japanese bookstore chain, had opened its first Middle East outfit in Dubai.
Kinokuniya, we were reliably informed, has held records all over Asia and North America for having the biggest stores (the New York branch on 49th Street stretches across an entire city block). But as anyone who visited Atlantis in its opening weeks can attest, size is far from everything – form only really works if it’s matched by function.
Imagine our delight, then, to discover that Kinokuniya actually lives up to the hype. The space, occupying almost an entire corner of the second floor of The Dubai Mall
(to put that into context, one level of the mammoth French department store, Galeries Lafayette, is due to take up a similar amount of floor space on the opposite side of the mall). But more than big, this place is properly, impressively stocked, featuring a huge selection of foreign magazines, alongside an even more impressive collection of Japanese Manga comic books and graphic novels. In between there are sections dedicated to every possible subject (including texts in German, French and Japanese).
Want to know more about physics, yoga or botany (The Encyclopaedia Of Wood, by Aidan Walker, in particular caught our eye)? It’s all here. Need to know about A History Of Tiaras? Kinokuniya will provide.
Best of all, though, is the ‘Literature’ section, simply because it contains just that: plays by Ibsen and Euripides, writings by Umberto Eco and, rather more surprising given the market, novels from British author Sarah Waters (Tipping The Velvet, Fingersmith). Keen to test the customer service, Time Out asked for a copy of The Master And Margarita, by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov – impressively, we were offered our choice of the American or British translation.
The only query that really remains is whether or not such a thorough approach will work in the UAE market. This is not a region particularly known for its population of dedicated readers, although innovations such as EAIFL, the UAE’s first international festival of literature in February, under the direction of Magrudy’s founder Isobel Abulhoul, proves that there is a thirst for debate and discussion around what and how we read. Books have a transformative power. The foundations are being put in place – now it’s up to Dubai to show that it wants to be transformed.
The store’s star
84 Charing Cross Road
The true story of a 20-year correspondence between US writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, chief buyer at a specialist bookstore in London’s famous ‘book row’. The pair never met – Doel died suddenly in 1968 – but developed a special friendship through their long correspondence, the tenderness of which was beautifully captured in the 1987 film of the same name.
Where better to find the object of ‘Why Miss Jones, you’re beautiful’ fantasies than a bookshop? This is (kind of) the thinking behind fabulous ’50s Gershwin musical, Funny Face. Gene Kelly’s fashion photographer discovers serious intellectual Audrey Hepburn in a Greenwich Village bookshop at the height of the Beat movement, sweeps her off to Paris and turns her into a star. See? Bookworms rock.
You’ve Got Mail
This 1998 saccharine-fest stars the ever dewy coupling of Meg ‘I’m so cute’ Ryan and Tom ‘I know I’ll be a serious actor one day’ Hanks as the proprietors of two rival bookstores who hate each other in person, but fall in love online. Here bookshops represent the small-time individual (Ryan) versus corporate power (Hanks). Which just goes to show: even a lousy film can have a timely metaphor when books are involved.
Bumbling Brit Hugh Grant pulls Hollywood star Julia Roberts. His job? Owner of a quirky, independent travel bookshop. ’Nuff said.
Kinokuniya, The Dubai Mall, phone 04 434 0011