For years, Somia Anwar and Grace Karim wished they could find a magical shelf that would come up with new books once their children outgrew the old ones, helping nurture their love of reading without having to make expensive trips to the bookstore or cluttering rooms.
The Sharjah residents did not find the elusive charmed shelf but instead came up the idea for Bookends, a website that allows users to buy and sell pre-owned books at discounted prices. They eventually went into business in January as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread, upending the global economy and transforming consumer behaviour.
Starting a new business during a global pandemic was no mean feat for the two friends and co-founders, who oscillated between doubt and assurance.
“The feedback we got was overwhelming," says Ms Anwar, an adjunct instructor at the American University of Sharjah’s School of Business Administration.
"Book lovers would say, ‘Now I don’t have to pay so much’... but there are a few times when you sit back and say, 'Is this the right direction?'”
Around the world, online book sales are increasing as people at home, including those in self-isolation, seek escapism and education amid restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. The trend is helping to offset some of the damage suffered by book shops shut by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the US, adult fiction book sales rose by 23 per cent in the five weeks ending June 5, compared to the previous five-week period ending May 2, when most states were under stay-at-home orders, according to the NPD Group.
The Bookends website allows buyers in the UAE to browse through its collection of used books, place an order online and pay cash on delivery.
Sellers can contact the founders through the website, Instagram or WhatsApp to discuss the condition of the books and agree on a resale price.
A minimum of a 50 per cent markdown on the original retail price is typically advised. Once the seller decides on the price, Bookends adds its service fee of Dh5 per book.
Operating a business during the coronavirus crisis came with an unusual set of challenges. For starters, they had to disinfect the used books and assure customers of the safety measures that were put in place as the items exchanged hands.
Once obtained from the sellers, the books were exposed to direct sunlight and then subjected to an ultra-violet light scan before being dispatched to customers through a courier service.
Next, the pair were inundated with data-entry tasks but could not hire anyone to help them due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The outbreak also meant they had to put on hold their ideas of building a community of readers through events and conversations about books.
However, there were also some timely opportunities.
People began to read more amid the Covid-19 restrictions that shut non-essential retail stores and resulted in remote working and online classes, Ms Anwar says.
Bookends registered an increase in inquiries, particularly for children's books, as parents sought new activities that did not entail the use of a computer.
“We definitely saw huge demand [and] we could not manage it. We posted books on the website on a daily basis, but we were selling more books than we listed,” she says. “People realised that after work or school, they need some off-screen time.”
Bookends also registered an increase in interest from some expatriates who were returning home and wanted to sell or donate their books.
“People who were leaving wanted to find a good home for their books, even as donations, so they contacted us and that was a great opportunity,” Ms Anwar says.
“There were times we were so overwhelmed – we didn’t have space and we had to hop around the room because there were huge piles of books.”
Some employees who were made redundant or were furloughed contacted the start-up to sell their books, she says.
“Many people who had lost their jobs were trying to make revenue by any means,” Ms Anwar says. “Some sellers started to gather books from others and sell them as a tiny source of income.”
Book sales jumped by 50 per cent each month between January and April. By July and August, the growth in sales had slowed to 25 per cent as movement restrictions were eased.
“We saw a reduction in demand because people wanted to go out and meet family or friends,” she says. “But it is still positive; we are not alarmed or worried.”
Bookends doubled the number of books on its website from 1,500 two months ago to 3,000 books as demand grew. It has recorded more than 100,000 visits to its website and has 200 sellers and about 800 unique users.
The top sellers on the website are children's books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. For adults, self-help books are in high demand, as are fiction novels by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho and Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. The popular Harry Potter series by JK Rowling is also among the list of best sellers.
The start-up secured a $10,000 (Dh36,700) grant in August from the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre, or Sheraa, and the venture capital arm of Crescent Enterprises.
The emergency capital is part of Dh700,000 in grants to help 11 start-ups cope with coronavirus-induced challenges.
Bookends’ founders will invest the money in custom-built software for the website to expand its data-entry capabilities, allowing for several users to input the data.
“What we are stuck in now is the rate by which we are entering books into the system,” Ms Anwar says. “An automated system would help: we now enter 100 books a day, but we need to be entering 1,000 per day.”
Bookends was awarded Dh25,000 in seed funding last year by Sheraa, as part of a competition for start-ups, to help launch the business. This was in addition to Dh50,000 of the founders' own money.
Bookends also won Dh25,000 during a start-up competition held by the Bank of Sharjah last month, which will be invested in office and storage space.
The popularity of e-books grew in many parts of the world during the pandemic after brick-and-mortar books shops shut down.
“They are easy to purchase, can be read instantly after being downloaded and eliminate any concerns [about] infection or availability,” said Kristen McLean, books industry analyst for the NPD Group.
Ms Anwar acknowledged the popularity of e-books but said she believes that print books are still in demand in the UAE.
“Parents would not want kids to be on their screens all the time, so we don’t see this as a concern,” she says.
Bookends, whose book collection spans seven languages, is seeking to expand its UAE operations and plans to grow the number of books on the website to 5,000 within two months and 10,000 by 2021, Ms Anwar says.
It also intends to raise the number of book orders to 20 a day, up from five now, once the number of titles on its website increases.
“We really want to shift the mindset of people to buying pre-loved books,” Ms Anwar says.
Company fact box:
Company/date started: Bookends / January 2020
Founders: Somia Anwar and Grace Karim
Base: Sharjah, UAE
Size: Three employees
Stage: Seed funding
Investors: Non-equity funds from Sharjah's Sheraa and self-financing
Q&A with Bookends' co-founder Somia Anwar
What is it like launching and operating a business during a global pandemic?
Bookends literally started at the same time as the pandemic. Yes, it brought with it many challenges but great opportunities too. As we don’t have a physical store, the [restrictions] didn’t have an impact on us. Our courier partner was functional, with some delays of course, but all manageable. We have great ideas to build a community and host events to bring readers together, which will have to wait until the pandemic is over.
What would drive your future growth?
Having a fully custom-built platform that enables scalability, a storage space for 50,000 books and building strong relationships and partnerships with sellers and other vendors.
Timing is important. Were you too early or too late in setting up your business?
We are just about at the right time. Starting during the Covid-19 [outbreak] gave us an extra boost as people were stuck at home and thus reading more. Although Bookends could have been started earlier, we still don’t think we are late as there are no direct competitors in the market offering a similar service.
Competition is tough, how are you building a defensible business?
Affordable low prices, books in multiple languages catering to the UAE expat population and a huge collection of books for all ages and genres.
What already successful start-up do you wish you had started?
We were meant for running Bookends, no other start-up could have brought us this joy and sense of accomplishment. We have a sustainable model that not only encourages reading but by using pre-loved books, we are doing our tiny bit for helping the environment.
What new skills have you learnt from starting your venture?
I am constantly watching tutorials and learning new skills. We manage our social presence and website maintenance ourselves. I am always looking to find solutions to automate any task on hand to improve our workflow.
What is your next big dream that you would like to make a reality?
We want to be the first choice for readers when they buy books in the UAE.