BEIRUT: Jamal fidgeted; he didn't have much time to talk. On one side of the shop old books pile up, on the other side lays a ramshackle collection of shoes, slippers and shirts.
Clearance signs were slapped across the shop’s windows. Jamal told The Daily Star that he had to pack up all the stock in the shop and return the keys to the landlord in the next few hours.
Jamal’s owned several shops in Beirut for the last 23 years and they have all closed in the past year. This shop in Hamra was his last one, and today it's closing.
Dozens of shops have closed since last autumn in Beirut’s famous Hamra neighborhood. Those that have survived face an uphill battle to keep going.
Lebanon has plunged into its deepest economic crisis in decades; the local currency has lost 80 percent of its value against the dollar, dramatically increasing the costs of imports as unemployment rises and wages drop.
Nada Saber has owned The Way in Bookshop in Hamra for 40 years; she has been forced to up prices to compensate for the cost of importing. “They see the books used to be LL30,000, now they're LL100,000, they will never buy it,” she told The Daily Star.
Some shop owners in Hamra said that they had kept prices the same despite the huge increase in the cost of buying new stock. “Trust me I didn’t even change one price,” Leila told The Daily Star, she gestured at a dress on the counter “If I sell this one at the old price I won't be able to buy another one.”
Leila has worked at Oriental T.O. for the last 10 years, despite the shop not raising prices she said they were selling one item of clothing every 10 days. Oriental T.O. is not alone, other clothes shops and jewelry stores told The Daily Star they were selling few items on a weekly basis.
Ghassan hasn’t sold an item of clothing in a month. Like many of the smaller shops in Hamra his shop was dark and humid, the lights were out and air conditioning turned off as nationwide power cuts have forced people to ration their generators.
The clothes in his 42-year-old shop used to be refreshed with new stock every few weeks, now with importing so expensive and little to no customers many of the clothes have been in the shop for months. “My collection is finished,” Ghassan said, casting a disparaging look around the room “there are a few pieces, nothing interesting.”
It’s not just retail shops that are struggling, Hamra was once renowned for its thriving cafe scene, now some have closed and many were eerily quiet.
In Hamra cafe the manager Mohammad looked around the room in despair, the cafe could hold over a hundred people today there’s just one couple. “Normally it's very busy, but” glancing around the cafe he laughed nervously “it’s almost empty,” he told The Daily Star. He never normally would have had time for an interview but now he has plenty, the weekends are even emptier he added.
Hamra cafe opened in 2010 and Mohammad said it was busiest in 2015. Many shopkeepers and employees were in agreement that Hamra was in decline before Lebanon’s recent economic crisis. When this decline started was disputed, some said as far back as the early 2000s.
Shopkeepers gave a variety of reasons for Hamra’s gradual downturn including politics, migration, and new trendy areas stealing Hamra's shine. The simplest explanation given was the traffic.
Saleh Barakat has owned Agial Art Gallery in Hamra since 1991. Speaking to The Daily Star on the phone he said that over the years clients increasingly refused to come to his art gallery because of the incessant traffic.
Barakat blamed poor planning and large institutions in the area such as the American University of Beirut for the ever-worsening traffic in the area.
In 2016 Barakat opened a new art gallery in nearby Clemenceau, he said many clients who would refuse to go to his Hamra gallery would happily go to Clemenceau.
Some establishments in the area were bucking the trend and had busy terraces, most noticeably the global chains of Starbucks and Dunkin Donut. Hamra’s bars also started to fill up as evening arrived. In a small pub called Zakaria the barman Ibrahim Barazi told The Daily Star that after the lockdown ended the pub had feared the worst.
However, Zakaria had been busier than expected. The pub has only slightly increased prices and kept a happy hour of local wine and arak. Barazi said a loyal customer base was keeping the bar afloat.
Despite these outliers, Hamra’s clearly experiencing a rapid fall from grace. This decline can perhaps be offset by the loyalty the area's unique personality generates. While many business owners bemoaned the current state of the neighborhood none of the dozen interviewees told The Daily Star that they planned on leaving.
“Hamra will remain,” Barakat said defiantly, “people will go and people will come back. Hamra remains the place where people connect, from all different religions and areas.”