Dubai start-up calls for volunteers after losing 20,000 books during floods

Owners of Bookends in Dubai Silicon Oasis are still sorting through the damage

Grace Karim, left, and Somia Anwar, owners of Bookends bookstore in Dubai Silicon Oasis. Pawan Singh / The National
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The impact on businesses from the record storms that hit the UAE last week is still largely being assessed, but one small company has said it is already fighting to get back on its feet.

The owners of Bookends, a second-hand bookshop in Dubai Silicon Oasis, is still reeling after the loss of at least 20,000 books.

Somia Anwar, who drove from her home in Sharjah to Dubai during the storm after receiving a call about the flooding in the shop, told The National it was like a scene from a film.

It felt like a scene from a movie. I could see my books floating, hear the water coming in
Somia Anwar, Bookends founder

As the shop is on the lower ground floor of a building in Digital Park, the water level was quickly rising when she arrived.

“It was pitch dark, I was trying to see what I could save, what books I can put higher, but most shelves are wooden,” she said.

“After about two hours, me, my son and husband realised there was nothing we could do.

“It felt like a scene from a movie. I could see my books floating, hear the water coming in. I knew I shouldn’t have been there, as it’s a safety issue, but it’s a start-up, it’s our baby, so I wasn’t thinking straight.”

Ms Anwar said it took authorities about three days to pump the water from the basement, by which time at least a third of their stock had been drenched.

“Three days immersed in water, all the shelves had to be thrown out. The books were piled on top of each other, so even if water didn’t reach a certain level, it soaked the top books as well.”

It was home to about 30,000 books, 10,000 of which they’ve had to throw away, with thousands more they’re trying to save. A nearby storage centre, which was also flooded, was home to 20,000 and Ms Anwar estimates they’ve lost about 10,000 to 15,000 of those.

“The books we lost, they don’t belong to us,” said Ms Anwar. “These books belong to the sellers.”

It's a community-driven online marketplace whereby anyone who wants to sell old books can list their items and use the credit from sales to buy new ones. Bookends adds a service fee.

She and Grace Karim started Bookends four years ago, during the pandemic.

“Grace and I are both mums and books are expensive," Ms Anwar said. "What do you do with books your kids have outgrown? We wondered why we don’t see more used bookstores. There was an opportunity at that time as everyone went into lockdown, because they either became a chef or a reader.”

Soon after launching, the duo were getting plenty of calls for a physical store, which they opened during Ramadan last year.

“The online store is great, but here we are saying less screen time and more reading time for kids, but they had to go online to purchase,” Ms Anwar said.

“The store also allowed us to host events for book lovers and kids. A lot of those things that give you more of a sense of community happened once the store opened.”

Ms Anwar and Ms Karim have been working 12-hour days on their premises trying to fix the damage.

“Some of the books are damp, so we’re putting some in the sun, but the entire place smells damp,” Ms Anwar said.

“We’re trying to take the books out and give them a bit of air. We’re sorting out dehumidifiers so at least some books are dry are safe and don’t start smelling. Our big concern is that no mould grows on them.”

For the moment, both the physical and online stores are closed as they assess the stock. They’ve also put a call-out for volunteers to help clear everything out and a campaign for used books that people don’t want any more.

“We’ve had an amazing response,” said Ms Anwar. “People are coming in from all over to give us a helping hand and sort out whatever is left of the books

"We have a lot of book lovers, including many people who didn’t know about us. There have been families and young kids about eight or nine years old. One kid came in yesterday and we gave him a scanner to scan some barcodes – he loved it and said he wanted to be a cashier when he grows up.

“We’re trying to find joy in everything we’re doing here, but we’re very heartbroken.”

Ms Anwar believes it will take up to 10 days before they can partially reopen the store.

They also need to repair damage done to the site – including to decorations created using books that were missing pages – and they will be replacing all the shelves and furniture with waterproof alternatives.

The online store will take longer to relaunch, as about 30,000 books were listed. “Until we do a proper recount, we don’t know what is damaged and thrown away,” she said.

She’s determined that they will reopen, however.

“With the amount of support we’re getting from the community, we will surely come back,” Ms Anwar said.

“We are amazed at the love and support we’re getting. We cannot let those people down.”

Dubai flooding: the aftermath - in pictures

Updated: April 26, 2024, 10:58 AM