Covid-19 restrictions that bankrupted businesses around the world have given a boost to a small second-hand book market in downtown Cairo. So much so that the Diana Market, named after a well-known movie theater in the same neighborhood, has begun to rival Soor el-Azbakeya, Egypt’s most famous market for vintage and second-hand books.
In addition to booksellers, the market is packed with vendors of antiques, collectibles and second-hand goods. The atmosphere is informal, with merchandise displayed on tables or the sidewalk, rather than in stalls.
“During the pandemic, our customers become less enthusiastic to enter el-Azbakeya and we sought to create an alternative market,” said Mustafa Haridi, a bookseller who trades in Diana Market every Saturday.
The key to the market’s success is selling via social media, a method that is new to book vendors and buyers alike in Egypt.
Transactions are done online through social media pages like those of Al-Ta’mi Bookstore for magazines, old documents, photos, newspapers and stamps, the Literary Treasury (Khizanet Al-Adab), and Al-Durr Al-Maknoon Books. All three also specialize in the sale of rare magazines and newspapers.
Vendors display pictures of their books with their prices online, and sales are on a first-come-first-served basis, Haridi said, adding: “Our prices are moderate and fair.”
In addition to the risk of Covid-19 infection, book lovers have been put off going to Soor el-Azbakeya by the peddlers who crowd into the surrounding area around the National Theater and the entrance to the Ataba metro station in downtown Cairo.
“During the pandemic, our customers become less enthusiastic to enter el-Azbakeya and we sought to create an alternative market.”Mustafa Haridi
A book dealer who trades in Diana Market every Saturday
“Now, vendors come to Diana’s Cinema Market to deliver their books and get the return, while the buyer pays, sorts the books and ensures the integrity of their pages before paying for them,” Haridi said.
‘A Magical Solution’
Mahmoud Al-Nouri first got to know the market three years ago.
“The stagnation in book sales in traditional markets due to the social distancing measures that accompanied the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic prompted sellers to think of new ways to promote books,” he said. “I think that social media offered a magical solution.”
He pointed out that some bookstores were delivering to homes before Diana Market took off. “Its location makes it a convenient meeting point for many,” he added.
Gallery: Vendors in Cairo’s Diana Market
Al-Nouri said buyers were also attracted by a code of honor which obliges sellers to sell at the price announced on social media.
Chihab El-Khachab, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge who specializes in the history of Middle Eastern studies, stresses the advantages of the market.
“The prices are reasonable, and the buyer comes with full knowledge of the books he intends to acquire, so there is no way to waste time,” he said.
Shahdi Attia, a scholar in the history of journalism who has been visiting the market since its inception three years ago, explained that “it attracted most of the small sellers of books and antiques” who trade in original editions of historical and literary books that have run out at modern bookshops.
“I found rare books that have not been reprinted, such as the early works of the famous journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal,” he said.
A New Vibrancy for the District
The market now gathers most of Cairo’s booksellers—from Soor el-Azbakeya, the Abu El-Reish district, and from around Cairo University. Prices are determined by factors including rarity, publication date and relation to defining historical moments, as well as the condition of the book or newspaper.
“The advantage of the market lies in the high transparency of buying and selling, so the customer comes with full knowledge of the price and content.”Sameh Adel
A market visitor who collects old magazines and newspapers
“The advantage of the market lies in the high transparency of buying and selling, so the customer comes with full knowledge of the price and content,” said Sameh Adel, a visitor interested in creating rare archival collections of old magazines and newspapers.
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The market opens only on weekends when fewer police officers are around. The scene is vibrant with vendors displaying a variety of antiques and old personal belongings such as watches, silver coins, paintings, old family photo albums, used mobile phones, home phones, alarm clocks, radios, televisions and leather shoes.
And Saturday trading has been busy enough to compensate for the loss of sales on weekdays during the lockdown.
The market has created a vital energy missing since the start of the pandemic in a district that was already disrupted by construction projects. (See a related article, “Arab Publishers Take a Hit From the Covid-19 Crisis.”)
“Cafes and restaurants suffered from a long stagnation and increased isolation as a result of the construction movement in the area to dig a new metro line,” said El-Khachab. The disruptions even “led to the cessation of shows at the Diana Palace Cinema, one of Cairo’s oldest cinemas,” he added. The market “has saved the district and awakened it up from its stagnation,” he said.