News that a branch of the Japanese bookshop, Kinokuniya, will open in Abu Dhabi later this year is very welcome indeed. This city is crying out for a proper, expansive bookshop that has the confidence to market itself as such and the enthusiasm to cultivate an environment that encourages people to come and browse and talk to each other about literature.
Too often in Abu Dhabi's bookshops, the actual books seem to be little more than an afterthought, buried – quite literally – behind piles of stationery, greetings cards, toys, board games, painting sets, knitting needles and suitcases. That's fine if you're looking to do all your Christmas shopping in one place, I suppose, but it's quite irritating if you simply want to buy a book, which, you might reasonably assume, is why most people visit such a place.
And if you do manage to wade through this rubble and find a bookshelf, the selection tends to be exasperatingly limited. There is no shortage of thrillers, celebrity memoirs and cheaply produced paperback versions of the classics, but you’re unlikely to find the latest literary fiction, for example, unless it has been nominated for a major prize. There is, to be blunt, a lack of imagination in the way the stock is curated.
There are exceptions, of course. Magrudy's in Al Wahda Mall has a varied, although far from extensive, selection of new and interesting titles, as does the branch on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus. If you have the time and the energy, it is also worth visiting Thrift Distribution and Books Trading, located behind the Royal Rose hotel near Al Meena Street. It's a ramshackle maze of shelves stuffed with second-hand books. You'll have to hunt, but you'll find plenty of gems thrown out by people leaving the country.
Shopping for literature should be a different experience to shopping for, say, a tin of paint or a pair of socks. More often than not, you go to a bookshop not knowing what it is you’re looking for (and even if you do know exactly what you’re after, the chances are, you’ll leave with a stack of other books, too). The pleasure comes from shuffling an inch at a time down row after row, picking out a title, studying it and then deciding whether to replace it or tuck it under your arm.
But the atmosphere also has to be right for this to be enjoyable. The strip lighting in Borders in Abu Dhabi Mall makes it feel like a warehouse. And you need sunglasses simply to get around Magrudy's in World Trade Centre Mall. Softening the lighting and placing some armchairs about the place would give off the message that this is a spot to unwind. And how about a small cafe on site where book lovers can sit and read or chat to one another and share recommendations? Great bookshops don't feel transactional; they are places where you want to hang out.
Avid readers appreciate some guidance, too. We want to know which books Magrudy's and Borders recommend this week. In Britain, Waterstones does this brilliantly, displaying suggested reading material by subject or style or period. By helping shoppers in this way, a bookshop can also create a kind of conversation with its customers.
None of this is difficult to achieve. So will Kinokuniya succeed? The signs are positive. The vast store in Dubai is quiet and impressively well-stocked. The window displays are regularly updated – it sounds trivial but it simply doesn’t happen here – and there is, as far as I remember, no sign of a wheelie suitcase or roll of wrapping paper vying for your attention.
If the Abu Dhabi store, set to open in The Galleria on Al Maryah Island in September, sticks to the Dubai model (and buys an espresso machine and a few armchairs), at last the city's residents will have an up-to-scratch bookshop, which doubles up as a place where we can step out of the chaos of city life and immerse ourselves in good literature.
And if it fails, well, it might finally be time for me to buy a Kindle and stay at home on the sofa.