When an Egyptian book collector died two years ago, his heirs found the best home for his massive library, which they donated to Omar Amin, a philosophy graduate and book lover.
Following his passion for books, Amin has come to be known as the saviour of vanishing libraries as he hunts for private book collections.
“These people’s private libraries represent a lot of what our culture used to be, an era when people had libraries at their houses,” Amin said. “Egypt’s history is so diverse being a melting pot of many races and cultures and that is reflected in literature.
“Donating old libraries doesn’t mean people are not into books. They just know that the books they donate will find a good home. Every donated book is a legacy that continues by spreading knowledge. Instead of having all these books recycled or stored improperly, this heritage finds its way to readers.”
What started as a humble shelf at Bardo Clubhouse in the Cairo suburb of Maadi where people could take and donate books, is a full-fledged bookshop on the ground floor of Bardo, an old villa turned quirky space where dance, art galleries and yoga all meet.
At first, Amin had friends passing by his home to pick up the books they wanted. Then the idea of the “Vanished Library” emerged.
“It’s called a library but it’s a bookstore. Well, it’s not a bookstore per se. In fact, it started off as neither a bookshop nor a library. The name comes from the vanished libraries in people’s homes,” Amin explained.
“Like our slogan says: The Vanished Library is a space for donated books to find new homes. The culture of reading has plummeted. Most people now seek information online rather than read a newspaper or a book and we need to help them change that attitude,” he said.
Amin sells certain categories of the books to pay the rent and keep the place running but two-thirds of the library’s volumes are for exchange and free of charge. Book donations are also made to orphanages, schools and charitable institutions.
Baher Mohamad, a communication engineer and first-time visitor to the Vanished Library said he planned to become an active supporter of the project. “It definitely won’t be the last. Next time I will bring books to donate or exchange,” he said.
Amin’s project ensures that vital literary history survives and that the right books reach the right people. While the shop continues to run on the trade-in system, Amin offers his book-hunting skills to people looking for that one special read.
“There are specific titles that the store’s goers request that are not available at the store so I keep an eye for what they want while searching and hunting and, on many occasions, I find them,” Amin said.
“I get some very beautiful old books and it’s a shame to leave them to deteriorate. Whether they are available for exchange or put out for sale, I keep them in good shape.”
At the Vanished Library, books are available in different languages, including Arabic, English, French, Hungarian and Italian, and cover a variety of genres but the books that are the most requested are on philosophy and psychology and in English.
“People mostly request books from me in person or ask for them online and, in most cases, they just find them,” he added.
Amin said he hoped to expand the book donation project to all provinces of Egypt and was working on building libraries outside Cairo to promote reading.
He is very careful about the choice of the places where the books are going to end up. “I donate books to places that are used by closed circles so people can have access to the books without the books being misused. I want books to find new homes where they can be read and taken care of,” he says.
Maha Mahmoud, a university student from Alexandria who has become a regular user of the library, says: “I wish there could be a branch of the Vanished Library there where I can exchange and donate books. Because of inflation in Egypt, books have become very expensive for a large segment of people and such a project will help alleviate this problem.”
Marwa al-Asar is a Cairo-based journalist.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.