In the shadows of the Royal Rose hotel on Electra Street, squeezed in among restaurants, dry cleaners and shops selling computer parts, you might find Thrift Distribution and Books Trading, Abu Dhabi’s only second-hand book store. Then again, you might miss it altogether. The glass windows are smudged, the yellow “Pull” sticker on the door is peeling away, and the neon sign somehow looks a little short of breath. It is the sort of place you might walk past half a dozen times without noticing. You shouldn’t give up, though, because behind this facade lies some 50,000 second-hand books.
They are everywhere. Piled high on tables and chairs. Stacked five-deep on wooden shelves that have to be wrestled apart, their aluminium runners bent out of shape by countless pairs of clumsy feet.
Complete sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica sit alongside travel guides, children’s books, collections of poetry and novels by John Cheever, Martin Amis and Jeffrey Eugenides. All tastes are catered for. On one recent visit, I spotted biographies of Virginia Woolf and Sharon Osbourne nestled cosily alongside each other. Together at last.
'Books deserve a second chance'
The person responsible for all this is 48-year-old Indian expat ZH Riyaz, who moved to Abu Dhabi from Kerala 22 years ago. It wasn't until 2008, however, that Riyaz decided to turn his lifelong love of literature into a business opportunity. He was inspired after seeing a copy of the Quran discarded in a public bin. "I thought, 'Why are people wasting these things?' Books deserve a second chance," he says. "At the time, I was reading a lot of political and current affairs books. It was just a passion of mine," Riyaz continues. "I had about 300 titles, everything from hardbacks to copies of the National Geographic." It was with this relatively modest collection that Riyaz opened the original Thrift Distribution and Books Trading on Hamdan Street. He moved the business to its current location nearly three years ago. This year, the shop is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
It hasn’t been an easy ride, though. “There was no road in front of the shop, it was just surrounded by vegetable shops and restaurants,” he says. “It was a struggle. I used to walk around distributing leaflets.” Trade was sluggish at first, and Riyaz only had one member of staff to help him run the shop. Nevertheless, the number of books he owned continued to increase month on month, in part because Riyaz could never help himself from buying more and more books from online marketplace Dubizzle, but also because contributions began to pour in from expats who were leaving the UAE.
“They don’t know what to do with their books,” he says. “They are too heavy to take home. When I started out, I would have to go out and collect the books. These days, people bring them to the shop, even during the lunch break when it’s closed.”
What's the secret to finding success?
Riyaz’s collection is now so large – he has more than 150,000 books – that last year he was able to open a second Thrift Distribution and Books Trading in Dubai. He also plans to open a cafe with a free library at the Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre in Abu Dhabi.
It is a remarkable success story, particularly so in an era when many predicted that the rise of websites such as Amazon, as well as the popularity of e-books, would put traditional booksellers out of business.
So what’s the secret? It’s simple, says Riyaz: low prices (most paperbacks cost between Dh10 and Dh15, which is eight to 10 times cheaper than new copies) and loyal customers, who love Thrift Distribution and Books Trading because it allows them the opportunity to swap books as well as buy them.
Customers come into the shop to trade books with Riyaz, meaning his stock doesn’t decrease, but often, they end up buying a few, too. And the most popular authors? You guessed it: Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown. Harder to shift are the text books and computer manuals. “These areas are developing all the time, so the books are soon out of date and don’t sell,” he says.
Customers come from all over the world – India, the Philippines, England, Eastern Europe and the United States – drawn together by the opportunity to browse in peace, a few precious minutes away from the hubbub of Abu Dhabi’s busy streets. He has even claimed that it is like a second home for some people.
If there is a tinge of sadness attached to these 10th anniversary celebrations, it is that Riyaz’s long-serving assistant, Victoria Pinto, who started working for Riyaz in 2009, recently had to return to India to care for her sick husband. According to Riyaz, Pinto knew the exact location on the shelves of every title and ran a strict filing system.
With Pinto’s untimely departure, though, it would be fair to say that chaos is starting to set in. “It’s a mess,” says Riyaz with a sigh, casting his eyes around the place.
My hunch is that his loyal customers won’t care a jot.
Our favourite second-hand finds
'The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love' by Oscar Hijuelos, 1989
Located deep within the shelves of a ramshackle bookstore in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, I came across Hijuelos's Pultizer prize winner The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The novel follows Cesar Castillo, as he spends his final hours in an abandoned hotel recalling the highs and lows of his former career as a successful Mambo singer. Like the music that courses through the pages, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is vibrant, passionate and tragic.
* Saeed Saeed
'Burmese Days' by George Orwell, 1934
Set in Burma (now Myanmar) during the final years of British colonialism, Orwell’s first novel is not his finest – far from it – but it is nevertheless worth reading for the unreconstructed fury that burns through every page. John Flory is an expat, who has become disillusioned by life in the jungle and is appalled by the behaviour of his racist companions at the European Club. I picked up a copy of this at a market while on holiday in Myanmar and was captivated by Orwell’s descriptions of long, stiflingly hot days spent far away from home.
* Rupert Hawksley
'The Yacoubian Building' by Alaa Al Aswany, 2002
This is probably my favourite book of all time, and I just happened to stumble across it in one of those swap libraries you find in many hotels. I’m sure I left a far inferior book behind – probably something chick lit-adjacent. I devoured every already-worn page of Al Aswany’s study of the inhabitants of one 10-storey building in Cairo in less than a day (something I rarely manage to do these days). The social commentary is piercing, the storytelling lingering.
* Nyree McFarlane
'Out of Place: A Memoir by Edward Said', 1999
This is the book that introduced me to the great Palestinian American thinker Edward Said, the best Arab intellectual of his generation who passed away in 2003. It’s a beautifully written story about his journey as he moved from his birthplace in the city of Jerusalem, to Cairo, and Lebanon and eventually the United States where he settled and became an American citizen. It’s a book that is very rich in detail and profoundly moving. I highly recommend it.
* Samia Badih
'Red Brotherhood at War', by Grant Evans and Kelvin Rowley, 1984
It was on a week-long road-trip to Manchester’s City’s historic 1999 second division play-off final victory against Gillingham beneath Wembley’s hallowed arches that I stopped off in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon and found this gem of a historical tome in a charity shop. We don’t learn much about Asian history in British schools, beyond the fact that we colonised most of it, and even less if the dreaded “communism” is involved, and this book opened my eyes to some fascinating facts from the period following that awkward defeat for the US’ military might in the region.
* Christopher Newbould