Brexit and Lebanon’s Economic Collapse Close the Chapter of London’s Iconic Saqi Bookshop

Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala
The entrance of Al Saqi Books, which permanently closed its doors in December 2022.

Like a picture captured in history, the iconic arched façade and intricate pilasters of Al Saqi Books have overlooked London’s Westbourne Grove Street for decades, welcoming patrons and everyday passersby on the street with an enticing array of books lining its display windows. A yellow and blue shop sign greets visitors, donning the bookstore’s logo: a man carrying a waterskin on his back, leaning down to pour water for two children. “The word Saqi means water-seller in Arabic…If you know our logo from our bookshop, you’ll see this. So it’s water, life,  knowledge. That’s the whole meaning of Saqi,” Lynn Gaspard, whose father André Gaspard was one of the two founders of the bookstore, told The National. Ms. Gaspard is the current director of Saqi Books, its publishing branch.
For 44 years, Al Saqi Books has served as the beating heart of Arab culture for tourists, expatriates, and Arab readers in London — but after struggling to stay afloat amid a rocky economic climate both in the Middle East and at home in the United Kingdom, the independent bookstore recently announced its closure at the end of the month, just before the new year. Over the past decade, bookstores worldwide have been forced to shut their doors. Syria and Lebanon have faced closures due to economic and social crises (read more about the state of the Arab world’s publishing industry in Al Jadid, Vol. 25, Nos. 80-81, 2021 and Vol. 26, Nos. 82-83, 2022). The bookstore chain Borders was liquidated in 2011, and even Barnes & Noble has closed several of its locations. Independent bookstores have taken especially hard hits as the culture of reading shifts with technology, making it increasingly difficult to keep up with costs.
Al Saqi Books’ closure saddens many who bid farewell to the bookstore, which has been beloved as a home to the Arab diaspora with a history dating back to the Lebanese civil war. The worsening state of the book publishing industry and the trend of bookstores closing paints a bleak picture for the future of books and reading. In the words of the Sudanese writer Amir Taj al-Sir in Al Quds Al Arabi, “If we go back in history to distant and even close times, we will find many burned bookstores and a heritage of great value that was destroyed in many parts of the world, but civilizations do not end like this…books are undoubtedly one of the greatest tools of civilization no matter how times change.” The closure of its bookstore certainly doesn’t mark the end of Saqi’s legacy, which will continue in its publishing branches Saqi Books and Dar al-Saqi in London and Beirut, as the bookstore clarified on its social media.
Saqi served as a vital link between Arab and Western cultures, encouraging dialogue, open-mindedness, and tolerance as the first Arabic bookstore in the United Kingdom and the largest bookshop specializing in books on the Middle East in Europe. Saqi represented “freedom of thought and expression, cultural diversity and sympathy for all peoples,” values that have been with the bookshop since its opening. The bookstore has stood as a reminder that “Arab culture is not limited to political violence,” explained Salwa Gaspard, André Gaspard’s wife and the store’s current owner and director, in an interview cited by QPosts.

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