For the love of reading

For the love of reading

The owner of a bookshop in Dubai, 68-year-old Idris Mears lets us in on his shrewd ideas for getting youngsters interested in books again - and why the print industry won't be dying out any time soon



By Sukayna Kazmi

Published: Fri 24 May 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 28 May 2019, 6:17 PM

Hiding under the blanket covers, holding a torch in one hand and a book in the other - that's how British Muslim Idris Mears remembers reading his books at night after his parents would tuck him into bed, as a child, and turn off the lights. Sixty years later, Idris can still be found lost in the pages of a book at his bookstore at Dubai's Alserkal Cultural Foundation called Book Quarter, which has been running since 2017.
With over 3,000 unique titles, the store has a range of books on Muslim heritage, general culture, art, history, geography, politics and even cooking. They come from more than 300 different publishers, and are received from English-language publishing houses from all over the world as well as university presses. Although the "heart of the book collection is a collection of books about Islam", Idris says he's very careful to say that his is not an Islamic book shop. "I'm not a propagating information centre," he states.
There are other kinds of books he deals with too. "I do buy second hand books and I have a book from the 1880s - but these types of books tend to sell very fast," he says. "I bring them for the book fairs, because there are people who collect antiquarian material about the Gulf."
Idris's love for books and reading goes back to when he was sent to boarding school at the age of eight, and the library became his retreat. Being brought up in the warm climate of the Gulf and then being sent to cold and freezing England in 1959, the library became a warm place where he could sneak away, hide and read to his heart's content.
His bookstore journey, however, began when he met a former student at a book fair. "Ahmed Alserkal was someone I'd taught at a language school in 1982. A book collector now, we kept meeting at book fairs. One day, when he was in London, he asked me if I'd like to open a bookstore at this cultural foundation in Bastakiya that he owned. I thought it was a great idea and a good location to open up a public bookstore. I see a large number of tourists now, because of the variety within the collection and availability of books that aren't accessible elsewhere."
Even though his store is so young, Idris has had a long-standing connection with the Gulf. He reminisces about the first time he came to the UAE and met with extraordinary individuals. "My family home (until I left to attend university) was in Bahrain," he says. "After I became a Muslim, I began to connect back to the Gulf and decided to visit the UAE for the first time in 1979 to meet two eminent scholars. My contact with the UAE has continued ever since."
After all these years, Idris is clear about which side of the book debate he falls on. At a time when technology is at its peak and books are readily available online, he much prefers the experience of reading a physical book. "Reading a book [in hand] is not the same as reading it on a screen. It's a different physical experience. And your relationship with a book is different from your relationship with a screen. You are preserving a practice that has played an integral part in human beings acquiring knowledge. Knowledge has always been in books. I like them as objects, and I like the smell. and dustiness of books."
Knowledge is important to Idris, who dropped out of university because he was discontent with its approach to learning. "I didn't want information, I wanted knowledge," he says. But he points out that if technology and e-books were really taking over from physical ones, there would be no need for the printing industry. "More books are being printed today than ever before. So, there is obviously a market for them. People clearly have a taste for that physical experience. It's in demand."
In encouraging people to read more, he greatly emphasised the need for creating an atmosphere that attracts people (especially the youth) towards bookstores rather than their phone screens. "I don't want to tell the youth anything, because they're resistant to being 'told things'," he says, shrewdly. "You have to trick them into bringing them into the atmosphere of books by holding events. Keep bookshops, and do things in them that are interesting that might bring youngsters into the zone of the bookshop and let them find out [what they're like] for themselves.
"Young people are often very resistant to being told by these old people with white beards, because they often think they know what's best for them," he continues. "But they learn things through experience. I think one of the things they appreciate is seeing new places and meeting new kinds of people, who are from the world of books and who can tell stories. I think storytelling is a great way to get people to access books. One of the things I do here is tell stories to young people. They hear these stories and ask me where they can find them. And I tell them that it's all here - right here in these books."
From hiding under the covers in order to complete a book back in the day to reading about 6-7 hours a day now, Idris proves that age is nothing when it comes to the love for reading and that there is a book for every individual. You just have to find the right one.
wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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