AMMAN, JORDAN —
For years, Hamzeh AlMaaytah nurtured a community of book lovers in Jordan, keeping his bookstore in Amman's old center open around the clock, encouraging customers to linger over rare treasures and often allowing them to set the price for a purchase.
His supporters recently had a chance to repay him when the local landmark was threatened with closure, following a sudden illness that sidelined him for several months as bills were piling up. By April, 330 people from more than 20 countries had contributed $18,000 in a crowd-funding campaign launched by two friends.
The money allows AlMaaytah to renovate his small, cramped space and expand to an adjacent storefront where he hopes to set up a literary salon, a display of rare books and a reading corner. Up to now, much of the store's activity has taken place outdoors, with books laid out under an awning on the sidewalk.
Despite the recent financial scare, the 36-year-old shopkeeper is sticking to his “pay as you please” business model, applied to most books. Customers can also pay a nominal fee to borrow books or read rare editions in the store.
“It's risky. But it's also an adventure,” said AlMaaytah, wiping the leather spine of a book while wearing gloves. “You would be surprised what putting your trust in people can do. It doesn't just make more room for generosity. They also want to come back for more. More books, more conversations.”
His family has been in the book business for more than a century. They opened the first bookstore in Jerusalem in the 1890s and moved the business to Jordan's capital following the 1948 war over Israel's creation. The family now owns three stores in Amman's old center, run by AlMaaytah and his brothers.
AlMaaytah recently renamed his branch “Mahall al-Maa,” loosely translated as “Source of Water,” to reflect his belief that books - like water - are a necessity and should be accessible to all.
Such access has been a problem in Jordan, which lacks government-funded community libraries, forcing readers to buy expensive books or go to university libraries, said Sara Qudah, the culture editor of the Al-Rai newspaper.
Running a bookstore seems to be an anachronistic endeavor in an increasingly digital world, where social media and satellite TV are dominating leisure time at the expense of reading books.
“The number of readers was bigger in the Arab world in the 50s, 60s, and 70s,” said Elyas Farkouh, a novelist and publisher in Jordan. “At the time, the Arabs wanted to change their societies, and books of literature, philosophy and politics were one of the ways to create change.”
“After the failure of creating change, people lost hope and stopped reading and stopped dreaming,” he said.
AlMaaytah has thousands of books, mostly stocked in a nearby warehouse for lack of space in his shop. This includes rare volumes, such as those from the 1917-1948 period of British Mandate rule of historic Palestine, the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
Still, AlMaaytah is selective - he won't sell books that promote conspiracies, extremism, sexism, anti-Semitism, tribalism or black magic.
“The same way some books are capable of inspiring readers and spreading love, these books can divide people and turn them into criminals,” said AlMaaytah, who occasionally slips from colloquial into formal Arabic and likes to quote from books, even in casual conversation.
His tiny space is much more than a bookstore. It's his part-time home - he sometimes sleeps on a mattress in the back - and serves as an intellectual and spiritual hub.
Customers sip on sage tea, read poetry, debate, and sing and play instruments for hours, often on the sidewalk out front.
“Sometimes I come here and leave two or three days later,” said Jordanian calligrapher Hussein Alazaat. “We literally talk about everything in the world.”
With the infusion of the crowd-funding cash, AlMaaytah is now busy painting walls, building shelves and organizing and cleaning books.
He said he hopes to use the rest of the donations to license his bookstore as a nonprofit organization to promote literary culture in the Middle East. He also plans to launch a radio show and take book fairs to refugee camps and prisons to lift the spirits of those who he says need it the most.
In the meantime, he tries to nurture appreciation for words written on paper, including hand-written letters.
When he gets a text message on his phone, he writes a response on paper, snaps a photo of it and sends the reply back on his phone. He says he believes that information read on screens is quickly forgotten.
“Technology dies, but books never do,” he said.