By Nayera Yasser
Six years ago, establishing a national chain of bookstores was a major business jeopardy. Nonetheless, three musketeers saw a hidden opportunity and decided to change the game forever by establishing one of the biggest bookstore chains in Egypt, ALEF bookstores.
Chairman Omar El-Shenety, the godfather and main sponsor of the entity and its vision, Moustafa El-Shenety, the managing and strategic director, and Ahmed Rahmy, general manager at ALEF Bookstores, began their journey with an essential vision. Today they are celebrating not only their local success but also international expansion.
The revolutionary project just opened its first international branch in London earlier this month. “The three of us dreamt of a global Arab bookstore chain that can help shape a better generation in our region with real access to books and knowledge and also give a better image about our region. But now it is not just the three of us, there are hundreds who share this dream with us whether employees, franchisees, clients or fans,” said Omar El-Shenety.
For years, the three masterminds behind ALEF worked relentlessly to bring their dream to reality. “A study was made three years ago comparing international expansion options. This study concluded that England, Germany, and Saudi Arabia are on top of our expansion choices,” said Rahmy.
The team perceives this branch as a cultural spot that would further empower and spread Arabic literature around the globe. Therefore, they have implemented intensive desktop research and field visits to 10 countries before making up their minds.
According to Rahmy, London appeared as the ideal choice due to its market nature, pool of opportunities, as well as the fact that it harbours one of the largest (concentrated) Arabic communities in Europe.
Moreover, their research confirmed that the capital is empty of competing bookstores that offer similar Arabic titles. “After agreeing on the location, we spent exactly one year and a half in market study, location selection, team selection, operations and logistics,” said Rahmy.
The new branch is set to become an Arab beacon to market and support literature. “Our Arabic section is 35% of the store’s total collection and we also have a wide range of translated books in order to introduce Arab literature to foreigners,” said Rahmy.
The London branch is currently open and has been attracting an increasing number of readers every day. Meanwhile, the chain is still highly active in Egypt as it has been changing the local cultural scene for years.
“We believed that people in Egypt don’t read because they don’t have access to books and we turned out to be right,” said Omar.
The project started with one target; to submerge Egypt with books in order to encourage people to read. For six years the team had one goal only, which is to expand further. “People in Egypt won’t drive miles away to buy books but if they have them at their disposal, they will buy them and in time they can become addicted to reading. Our objective was to build a chain,” said Omar.
With 30 branches around the country and 20 points of sale in gas stations, the team did not only succeed in building an empire, but they have also proved their theory. ALEF, along with few other bookstores, have increased local readership tremendously; reviving a habit that was close to extinction.
According to Rahmy, current levels of readership are certainly promising, especially after the 25 January Revolution.
“We assumed that the main barrier for not having high readership percentages in Egypt was the supply. Demand has always been solid and proven many times when price/availability barriers were removed,” Rahmy added. “Our assumption was correct and once ALEF made books available in many places and untapped locations such as governorates, readership went far as we can see now.”
ALEF’s initiatives did not only take books out of their conventional borders; it has also reinterpreted reading as a habit. The team worked on a few national campaigns such as “Knowledge Taxi” and “Egypt Reads”, which aimed to position reading as the antidote to any routine, as well as a habit of the entire nation.
However, the project’s most successful attempt was turning physical stores into cultural centres and hubs with events all year round, to actually convince local youth to regard bookstores as interesting destinations that offer teaching workshops, book signing events that host Arab and international authors, as well as storytelling gatherings for children.
When studying ALEF’s sales rates since its inception, it is safe to say that, over the last three years, the numbers have tripled.
“We are still in the ‘Trend’ phase, soon the ‘Habit’ phase should start,” Rahmy explained. “In the current phase people imitate each other without looking for their real and original interests. For example, fiction has been dominating sales for the past two-three years, especially horror fiction. Nonetheless, we can see change and replacement of this trend nowadays as spiritual readings, not religious, and Sufism is occupying bestselling lists.”