There is a legend of a mythical city, a hidden oasis located in the Sahara called Zerzura.
Rumoured to have existed deep in the barren desert to the west of the Nile River in Egypt or Libya, Zerzura was a white city filled with hidden treasures. Despite many expeditions over the years, it was never found.
But there is another Zerzura today, tucked away in Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz, Dubai. The namesake of the ancient city, on the first level of the co-working space A4, has something arguably more precious than gold: rare books.
Zerzura Rare Books is the first shop dedicated to vintage books in Dubai. Its doors opened to the public in September, with almost 150 rare and vintage books for sale, among them about 20 first editions.
Almost all the titles, which cover a range of genres, are recognisable and give a sense of nostalgia to readers of all ages.
A 2000 first edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, signed by JK Rowling; a 1988 first edition of Matilda by Roald Dahl; a 1959 first edition of Arabian Sands by writer and explorer Wilfred Thesiger; and a 1957 first edition of From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming, from his James Bond series — Zerzura Rare Books is a trove of delights for the dedicated bookworm, the collector or the merely curious.
“I have this belief in the value of books,” Alex Warren, founder and owner of Zerzura Rare Books, tells The National.
“It sounds like a cheesy thing but in a digital age, I think books still have that value. They look nice on your shelves and can be pieces of art. Books fundamentally have not changed over the centuries. The binding has changed a bit but still, they are words on paper that you turn.”
Sitting in display cabinets, shelves and tables, it’s astonishing to see such a varied collection of books, — some more than a hundred years old — in such good condition. Posters showing classic book covers and original photos and maps of the region adorn the walls.
Aside from the always-popular novels and children’s literature, Zerzura also has books about regional travel, art and history.
“We have a general mix and some stuff that everyone will know and recognise, and pieces that cater to different budget ranges as well,” Warren says. “I've got books at Dh150 going up to [more than] Dh20,000 for a Sherlock Holmes that we've got.”
One of the oldest books in the store is a 1902 first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, from the Sherlock Holmes series.
Containing stunning black-and-white illustrations, the book follows the famous British detective as he attempts to solve the mystery of a legendary supernatural hound. The story has been adapted for the stage and screen including in BBC’s popular series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
The adaptations of many popular books over the years not only introduces new generations of readers to authors and stories but also raises the value and garners interest in original, vintage and rare book editions, Warren adds.
Discovering these books in a physical shop, exploring what’s available on shelves and learning about the history of the authors and stories they created is what makes book collecting and the world of rare and vintage books so exciting, Warren says.
“I always love digging around old second-hand book shops,” he says.
“There's that bit of excitement you get when you're hunting around and you can find a little bit of treasure in a dusty corner of an old bookshop. It can be something that actually is either valuable or rare or is important to you personally. It doesn't have to be a financial value.”
Purchasing a first edition or a rare copy of a book can have more than one benefit, Warren believes. Everyone has a personal connection to a story and by extension a book. A first edition of a favourite childhood book has nostalgic value, and many feel it is something worth investing in.
Owning a rare book can also feel unique and personal.
“People like having something that is hard to get or unique,” he says. “It’s something you can pull off your shelf and it's got that wow factor.”
Rare books also have investment value, Warren adds. Similar to art, comic books and memorabilia, first-edition books from popular series such as Harry Potter or James Bond or from writers such as Dahl or JRR Tolkien will not only hold their value but increase it over time.
“I would buy books that firstly, I like and enjoy, I think that's the first most important thing,” Warren advises those interested in starting a book collection.
“It's a nice thing to have and own, you've got your connection with it. And it's something that will hold its value. And you can enjoy it as well.”
For those with something particular in mind, Zerzura can also source out-of-print books or hard-to-find titles. But as the in-store collection is so extensive, that is not often necessary.
“This is the only place in Dubai where you can come and see some of these old books,” Warren says.
“They're not hidden behind a locked safe, you can come and have a look at the books, pick them up and see some of these classic books that look and feel nice.”
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