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Al Saqi Books, London's first Arabic-language bookstore, is closing down

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A literary institution in London will close its doors at the end of the year. Al Saqi Books opened in 1978. It was the first Arabic language bookstore in the city and a hub for those who craved a slice of home and a refuge for free expression. But the world's tough economy has prevailed. Salwa Gaspard co-founded Al Saqi Books, along with her husband Andre. She joins us now, along with her daughter, Lynn, who helps run the shop. Thank you both very much for being with us.

SALWA GASPARD: Thank you.

LYNN GASPARD: Thanks for having us.

SIMON: Salwa Gaspard, what's that name mean - Al Saqi?

GASPARD: It's the water seller. So we chose this name because there was a very famous painting by Jawad Saleem of a water seller. And we thought it would be very nice for a bookshop to be like a culture seller as well.

SIMON: Well, and people who thirst for knowledge could go there, I guess.

GASPARD: Yeah.

SIMON: And why was it important to you to open an Arabic-language bookstore in London?

GASPARD: Many Arabs were coming to London at the end of the '70s. It was a big boom for the oil industry and the Arab world. They were coming in masses, and during the civil war in Lebanon, they stopped going to Beirut. So we had to recreate almost a cultural center, you know, to replicate what we used to have in Lebanon - freedom of expression, freedom of reading, all the culture. And that's why the bookshop started.

SIMON: We should explain, of course, you are from Lebanon, and your family runs a publishing house there in Lebanon. Lynn Gaspard, what was it like to grow up around this bookstore?

GASPARD: It was wonderful. It was my life. Our school bus would drop us off at the doors of the bookshop every afternoon, and we'd spend all our afternoons, my sister and I, amongst the books and playing hide and seek. The basement to us at the time just felt like a maze full of shelves of books and rows and rows of dusty bookshelves. My mum put us to good use, you know, and she used to make us stuff envelopes with their catalogues. But we loved it.

And as my mum said the other day, you know, my parents moved here from Lebanon during the war, and we grew up here, and we didn't have, you know, blood relatives here. We had our bookshop relatives, I guess, and that whole community, that wider sort of literary community around us, and that was family, and that was home.

SIMON: Let me ask you, both of you, but beginning with Salwa Gaspard, to take us back to 1988. You carried "The Satanic Verses," which I don't have to remind you, had been banned in a number of places. And what happened to your store?

GASPARD: We were selling the book and very naively displaying it in the window as well. So we had the window broken, and then we started receiving threats that they will burn the bookshop. So I called the police, and asked them, we are receiving threats - what shall we do? And the policeman was very pragmatic. He told me, are you making so much money from the book that you would risk your bookshop? Why don't you just hide it at the back and sell some copies to whoever asks for it if you are sure it's not a dangerous customer?

SIMON: I guess that's a very practical solution, isn't it?

GASPARD: (Laughter).

GASPARD: It's so British, you know?

SIMON: But it was important to you - well, you were opponents of censorship. And you think that's important to...

GASPARD: Yes.

SIMON: ...What a great bookstore is.

GASPARD: I mean, many books were banned, and many authors were banned in the Arab world. And we had every kind of books, if it was, you know, of a good quality, of course - academic quality. We wanted just, you know, to be fair to everyone and to be free, not to obey any tendency - nothing.

GASPARD: And people - many of our customers would visit from abroad, from the Arab world, from the region, and they would come in to the shop and say, where are all the banned books?

(LAUGHTER)

GASPARD: So we often joked that we should have a banned books section.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, good for you. Why can't such a great, beloved place keep its doors open? And I know the price of real estate in London is crazy.

GASPARD: It's mainly the price of the books coming from Lebanon because our stock is mainly Arabic books.

SIMON: Yeah.

GASPARD: The price of Arabic books from Beirut has gone up in price incredibly.

SIMON: Anything planned for the last days of the shop that you can share with us?

GASPARD: It's like we've never seen so many Arabs in London.

GASPARD: The shop is packed at the moment. Yeah, it's been packed. It's quite overwhelming to see just how many people this is affecting, and they're coming and saying goodbye to us. And it's wonderful - also heartbreaking, of course. And we're having a little...

GASPARD: Yeah. The most difficult thing for me is when I see people taking a picture of the window and of our sign, like it's the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben or whatever.

GASPARD: Because it was home for these people, too. That's the thing. You know, it was - Saqi, the bookshop, for decades has been a landmark. And, you know, you'd meet Arabs in London, and they would say, when I - when my family visits from abroad, I take them to Big Ben and to Al Saqi Books. (Laughter) And I think this is what, you know, people are going to miss. It's iconic.

SIMON: You've provided a lot to a lot of people. What are you going to do now?

GASPARD: I have no idea what I will do later. And I don't know.

GASPARD: Go on holiday. Read some books.

(LAUGHTER)

GASPARD: Put your feet up. You deserve it after all these years.

GASPARD: Visit the countries you've read about. Yeah.

SIMON: Salwa and Lynn Gaspard, who own Al Saqi Books in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

GASPARD: Thank you, Scott.

GASPARD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.