Timeframe: how Magrudy's bookstore put the UAE on the literary map nearly 50 years ago

The celebrated book and toy chain celebrates its 47th anniversary this week

Magrudy's flagship shop in Jumeirah, Dubai in 1979. Photo: Magrudy's
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There was a celebration this week for a UAE cultural institution.

Magrudy's, a home-grown brand now synonymous with children’s literature and educational toys, marked its 47th anniversary on Wednesday in a typically low-key manner at its branch in Jumeirah.

Milling with the crowd was co-founder Isobel Abulhoul, who exchanged recollections and reflections of a humble shop that grew into a market leader, and in the process helped place the UAE on the global literary map.

In Magrudy's was where some of the country's first book groups were formed and where the earliest batch of international authors were invited for readings and discussions, including celebrated Brazilian author Paulo Coelho in 2005.

With the Abu Dhabi and Sharjah International Book fairs — launching in 1981 and 1982 respectively — mostly focusing on trade at the time, it was the author sessions and meet and greets at Magrudy’s that sowed the seeds of what would become the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Then again, these pioneering achievements were a far cry from what Abulhoul initially envisioned.

In a previous interview with The National, she described opening Magrudy’s first shop on the Dubai-Sharjah Road in 1975 as a necessity, after co-founding Dubai’s Al Ittihad Private School that same year.

“I had absolutely no retail experience,” she says.

“I wasn't even thinking about that. By the time we launched the school I had two young children, so education was very much on my mind.

“And once we opened the school I started thinking about how we needed a place where families can get books and educational toys, so we then set up Magrudy's.”

Abulhoul only has to close her eyes for images of the first Magrudy's store to come rushing back — but the brand eventually expanded to 15 locations, including in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

"There was plenty of space and lots [of items] at child's eye level. Around the walls, above the shelves, were big murals of cartoon types of creatures — whether they were alligators or bears — that formed a collage that everyone would enjoy," she says.

"It was full of the kind of toys that in 1975 were considered good toys — so, of course, we had Lego and Playmobil. We had a working steam engine paying credit to scientific ideas, lots of wooden toys, a rocking horse, lots of games such as Snakes and Ladders and chess.

“And that was just the beginning of the shop because in the back there were shelves of children's books, from the classics to ones selected from catalogues sent out by publishers."

It was Magrudy’s savvy selection of titles, ranging from bestsellers to non-fiction and instructional guides, that was also responsible for its renown.

The specialisation in children's literature and the family ethos made Magrudy’s the first UAE book chain to bring JK Rowling’s 1997 debut Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to the country.

“I knew this was the beginning of some kind of phenomenon when two of my children found this book while we were on holiday in Cambridge. They were so entranced with it, I had to buy them a separate copy each because they couldn't share it,” she said.

“When I came back to Dubai I immediately imported more copies to the stores and we went on to eventually sell something like 5,000 copies of it. We kept ordering the books to meet the demand.”

While Magrudy’s continues to stock literary blockbusters, it is in education where it arguably makes its biggest impact.

The brand expansion includes two campus bookstores, one at NYU Abu Dhabi and another at Khalifa University Abu Dhabi.

Interactions with these students, and the adults who as children grew up visiting this Aladdin’s cave of imagination over the past four decades, give Abulhoul the biggest satisfaction.

“Nothing is better than meeting customers who visited us as children with their families decades ago,” she says.

“They now bring their own children to enjoy what we have to offer.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see photos from the 2022 Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature

Updated: November 19, 2022, 4:14 AM