Lubnan

A father’s bookish vision brought to life in Al-Tariq al-Jadideh

BEIRUT: In April 2016, for the first time in years, Lana Halabi stepped into her father’s store – a space that had become a treasure trove of literature and knick-knacks over the course of a decade. “There were things everywhere, we couldn’t walk in,” Lana recalled. “When we were cleaning it out, we found a fridge filled with books,” she added, laughing.

In the age of Librairie Antoine and Malik’s, Lana’s dream to transform her father’s literature collection into a bookstore seemed an unlikely enterprise and risky investment to many – including her father, who had previously dreamed of opening a library in Beirut’s southern neighborhood of Al-Tariq al-Jadideh.

Today, upon stepping into the Halabi Bookstore, the distinct smell of old books and the intimate environment transports browsers to a realm far removed from the corporate bookstore experience.

In this 25-square-meter, no-frills store, there are no baristas serving coffee or sandwiches. But if you’re lucky enough to strike up a conversation with Abdullah, Lana’s 68-year-old father, he may very well serve you a paper cup of Arabic coffee straight from his own stash behind his desk.

“I was inspired by bookstores abroad,” Lana said. “Mainly Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I felt it was special because we shared some commonalities in our histories, but of course, theirs is much older.”

Located on the edge of the Seine, on Paris’ Left Bank, Shakespeare and Company is world famous. While the literary trove has enjoyed a long and fruitful history, its most recent iteration – like the Halabi Bookstore – is the result of a daughter carrying out the vision of her father.

When The Daily Star visited, Abdullah mounted a ladder to fetch a novel. While suspended on a rung, he points to a portrait behind him of his father, Hussein Halabi, the original owner of the store, which began as a corner shop.

“My father opened this shop in 1958. I was still in school and would come back and help when classes ended,” Abdullah said. “We sold newspapers, some books, tobacco and food.”

Rifling through several photos of his father and himself during the early days of the store, he stopped to point out an image of his teenage-self planting a tree in front of the store. He suddenly hopped out of his chair and headed for the door.

“See this tree here?” he asked pointing to a mature shrub on the sidewalk. “That’s the one.”

The shop closed and reopened several times throughout the Lebanese Civil War, before shuttering, seemingly for good, in 1983. Seven years later, Abdullah returned to Lebanon, setting in motion the store’s slow transformation.

“I started collecting books. Things here, some things there,” Abdullah said.

“I watched people reading on the bus, around the city and realized there was something special about the act of reading. I started to build a reputation, and people would ask me for specific things.”

Abdullah’s endeavor would eventually fill the entire storefront of the old shop, prompting him to move his wares outside, with magazines, books and newspapers for sale on the sidewalk.

Lana, who had helped her father out over the years, formally joined the small business in 2015 after losing interest in the job she held at the time.

Seeing potential in her father’s mostly dormant collection – with stacks of volumes forgotten inside the store – she took the lead in transforming the Halabi library into a viable enterprise.

“Making this store is a testament [to the fact] that all the books he has collected over the years have worth, it all has value,” she said.

The small store officially opened as the Halabi Bookstore one year ago. Al-Tariq al-Jadideh, a working class neighborhood with a reputation for occasional instability, is at first glance an unusual neighborhood for the endeavor. But now the store has become a small hub, bringing conviviality to the area.

“Everyone calls and asks me if we’re located in Hamra, and sometimes they’re surprised to hear we’re in [Al-Tariq al-Jadideh],” Lana said. “Though people in the neighborhood have told us they were happy to see this here, rather than in more predictable places.”

“I am so happy that Lana had so much love and motivation to make this space,” Abdullah said. “It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 11, 2017, on page 2.

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