Archie's has written an important chapter in Dubai

The pioneering shop was opened in 1987 by a former bank employee with her own money and collection of 1,000 books.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, June 01: Martin Billington (left) and Susan Walpole (right) browsing books at the House of Prose book shop in Jumeirah Plaza on Jumeirah Beach road in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News
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DUBAI // Every fortnight for the past 23 years, Pratibha Venugopal has driven from Sharjah to Dubai to pick up an armload of books from Archie's Lending Library & Bookshop. Ms Venugopal, an Indian teacher, is a regular face at Archie's, which is tucked away in a lane near Burjuman Shopping Centre in downtown Dubai. Her kinship with the place dates back to when she moved from her home in southern India.

"Archie's is a habit I cannot break," said Ms Venugopal, who works at the Star Private School in Sharjah. "There were no libraries when I moved to Sharjah." She is one of many readers who say they have come to depend on a small network of lending libraries and second-hand bookshops, as much for a sense of community as for the books themselves. Some of these gems are tucked down backstreets. One is even hidden in a car park behind a shopping mall.

Archie's is a firm favourite with bookworms. It was opened in 1987 by Yasmine Chinoy, a former bank employee, who set it up with her personal collection of 1,000 books and her own money. Members can now borrow some 60,000 titles. Ms Chinoy, 56, knows many regular clients by name - and the authors they like. Handbills with information on everything from Hindi classes to baby-sitters to bridal stores are pasted near bookshelves, reinforcing the community feel.

Ms Chinoy has even been known to drop off books to new mothers in hospital. While two weeks is the limit to return books, members who drive in from Sharjah and Abu Dhabi are given an extra week. "We try not to be rigid because we have a bond with our members," said Ms Chinoy. "We see them so often. They are like family so we modify some rules. "I thought of the name Archie's because I wanted to attract younger kids" she adds, and indeed students checking out fantasy books also wander over to shelves packed with physics, mathematics and biology books that are sandwiched between the travel and mystery sections.

"Parents tell me they would love to read to their children, but there is little time when they return from work," adds Ms Venugopal. "They complain about the power of television and games [but] libraries bring the fun back into reading and help develop the habit from a young age." At the House of Prose in Jumeirah Plaza, the owner, Mike McGinley, knows regular readers and their families by name and says the concept of buying books for less keeps his customers coming back.

All books bought from the store can be returned at any time for a 50 per cent refund of the initial cost in cash. "I'm optimistic about the future of reading. There are so many children who come in to buy books," said Mr McGinley, an American, as he greets a nine-year-old girl coming in with her Emirati aunt. A fantasy book and comics are picked out by Hannah Evans, who is visiting from Britain. "I love books because everything is real. You have a story in your head and you can believe that it is real," she said.

Others like Helen Rodd, 49, from the Netherlands, appreciate the low prices. "If this store did not exist in Dubai, I don't know where I would go [and] what I'd do," she said. The small libraries and stores do not draw only English-speakers. The Old Library, hidden near a car park behind the Mall of the Emirates, is part of Dubai folklore. It has grown from a box of 50 books sent in 1969 by a Lady Verney to her grandson who was with the British Army.

Initially serving a mostly UK expatriate clientele, the bright and cheery library now attracts Emiratis and families that are not native English speakers. Its net has also spread to include French and German families with children studying in English schools. "When we took the decision to move to the desert side of Sheikh Zayed Road in 2002 we were afraid nobody would come," said Jenny Orford, the library's chairwoman.

"It was the best thing we decided for the library. The diversity is growing with [Emirati] nationals and others using the library. There is a big push for reading."