New books might be shiny, but there’s something about old books that carry a certain charm. Whether it is a rare copy that isn’t in the market anymore or a 1930s signed copy of an old novel; what they hide between their covers may surprise the buyer, as would finding a whole market in Cairo dedicated to used books.
Sour El Azbakia is a literary mine for anyone that enjoys treasure-hunting. The name is a reference to the market’s original location in Cairo, which changed several times due to constructional changes and the problems that threatened the market’s demise. Luckily, the market has survived for almost a century now and is sitting today in front of Cairo’s Puppet Theatre in Ataba Square, where a Metro station exit can get you straight inside.
A walk through the budget-friendly market takes time: for one thing, it contains more than a hundred little shops, and the searching process isn’t going to be easy if you’re not looking for a specific book. If you’re lucky, the shop owner will stop with his questions and leave you to take a look at the enormous stacks of dusty used books, carefully balanced on top of each other. Don’t leave an inch of the shop unsearched; a fast glance is not enough, as your target may be found under a chair or hiding behind a rack.
Nothing can get in the way of a shop owner determined to help a customer find a certain book. If he doesn’t have your book, he will recommend another place or order it for you. If you look like you’re really interested in finding a rare book; he’ll tell you of someone who knows ‘a guy’ that can get you a half-priced rare or even recently banned copy.
There are those shop owners that will do whatever they can to help; they may even offer to sell you some e-books that they’ve downloaded– legally, we’d like to think– and printed themselves.
Since the books are used, most of them are not in great condition. Prices are cheaper, but not always cheap; so make sure to ask about the book’s original price before heading to the market so as not to be deceived. Prices start from as low as 1LE to 200LE for classics, original scripts or encyclopaedias.
There are no price tags; so the pricing mainly depends on the salesman’s mood and what he thinks you can pay. Therefore, never take their word as absolutely final; or you could end up buying a torn Nicholas Sparks novel for 50LE. Bargaining is key here; try your best to reduce the price, and if that doesn’t work; pretend that you’re leaving: the owner wouldn’t let you go away that easy, and he will eventually relent.
The market is available all year long. Apart from its presence at the yearly International Book Fair, where it is usually the most crowded wing of the fair, Sour El Azbakia goes on a yearly tour to public and private universities in Cairo. Also, check out their website here, where you can order and request books to be delivered to your house.
Sour El Azbakia is not just for academic researches or thick-glasses readers; this market has a little something for everyone: multilingual books, recent international magazine issues, and even decade-old Egyptian kids’ comics such as Magalet Mickey can be found in this authentic place.