Jordanians crowdfund to save ‘pay-as-you-like’ bookstore

Jordanians crowdfund to save ‘pay-as-you-like’ bookstore
More than 300 people from more than 20 countries contributed some $18,000 in a crowd-funding campaign launched in an attempt to rescue a 'pay as you like' bookstore.
4 min read
28 June, 2017
Hamzeh al-Maaytah sorts books at his Mahall al-Maa bookstore [AP]

For years, Hamzeh al-Maaytah nurtured a community of book lovers in Jordan, keeping his bookstore in Amman’s old centre open around the clock, encouraging customers to linger over rare treasures and often allowing them to set the price for a purchase.

The Palestinian bookstore owner's supporters recently had a chance to repay him when the local landmark was threatened with closure, following a sudden illness that sidelined him for several months as bills were piling up.

By April, 330 people from more than 20 countries had contributed $18,000 in a crowd-funding campaign launched by two friends.

The money allows al-Maaytah to renovate his small, cramped space and expand to an adjacent storefront where he hopes to set up a literary salon, a display of rare books and a reading corner.

Up to now, much of the store’s activity has taken place outdoors, with books laid out under an awning on the sidewalk.

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Despite the recent financial scare, the 36-year-old shopkeeper is sticking to his “pay as you please” business model applied to most books. Customers can also pay a nominal fee to borrow books or read rare editions in the store.

“It’s risky. But it’s also an adventure,” said al-Maaytah, as he wiped the leather spine of a book while wearing gloves.

“You would be surprised what putting your trust in people can do. It doesn’t just make more room for generosity. They also want to come back for more. More books, more conversations.”

His family has been in the book business for more than a century. They opened the first bookstore in Jerusalem in the 1890s and moved the business to Jordan’s capital following the Nakba. The family now owns three stores in Amman’s old centre, run by al-Maaytah and his brothers.

Al-Maaytah recently renamed his branch “Mahall al-Maa,” loosely translated as “Source of Water,” to reflect his belief that books — like water — are a necessity and should be accessible to all.

Such access has been a problem in Jordan, which lacks government-funded community libraries, forcing readers to buy expensive books or go to university libraries, according to Sara Qudah, the culture editor of the Al-Rai newspaper.

Al-Maaytah has thousands of books, mostly stocked in a nearby warehouse for lack of space in his shop. This includes rare volumes, such as those from the 1917-1948 period of British Mandate rule of historic Palestine.

Still, al-Maaytah is selective — he won’t sell books that promote conspiracies, extremism, sexism, anti-Semitism, tribalism or black magic.

“The same way some books are capable of inspiring readers and spreading love, these books can divide people and turn them into criminals,” he said.

His tiny space is much more than a bookstore. It’s his part-time home — he sometimes sleeps on a mattress in the back — and serves as an intellectual and spiritual hub.

Customers sip on sage tea, a soothing beverage famously linked to Palestinians and Jordanians, read poetry, debate, and sing and play instruments for hours, often on the sidewalk infront of the shop.

“Sometimes I come here and leave two or three days later,” said Jordanian calligrapher Hussein Alazaat. “We literally talk about everything in the world.”

With the infusion of the crowd-funding cash, al-Maaytah is now busy painting walls, building shelves and organising and cleaning books.

He said he hopes to use the rest of the donations to license his bookstore as a nonprofit organisation to promote literary culture in the Middle East. He also plans to launch a radio show and take book fairs to refugee camps and prisons to lift the spirits of those who he says need it the most.

In the meantime, he tries to nurture appreciation for words written on paper, including hand-written letters.

When he gets a text message on his phone, he writes a response on paper, snaps a photo of it and sends the reply back on his phone. He says he believes that information read on screens is quickly forgotten.

“Technology dies, but books never do,” he said.