Khayat’s Bookshop: a window into the old Beirut

The postcards still sold in Khayat’s Bookshop in Bliss Street are all about nostalgia. Be they the black and white postcards of Beirut and its surroundings from the 1940s or the colored postcards with the deep blue skies and the banners that say “Greetings from Beirut” from the 1960s and 1970s the past is as present as the smell is musty.

Shop owner Habib Abujaudeh likes to give them away to friends. They are his last remaining stocks from the days when he owned a different retail store for books and stationary in the seventies in Hamra.

“Look at this one, that’s my wife,” jokes 71-year-old Abujaudeh over coffee showing an old postcard depicting people in a busy market street of former downtown Beirut during the 60s. His wife Yvonne shakes her head saying, “Can’t you ever stop joking?”

But he continues asking, “Doesn’t she look just as pretty as now?” Indeed, she does. Yvonne, in her late 60s, is a lady in a rose Chanel-style costume, sitting behind the counter of the store. They make a charming, amusing couple and countless students, book lovers, foreigners and locals alike have spent hours browsing the shelves and laughing with the owners.

“Believe it or not my wife is a great driver,” Abujaudeh says pausing before adding, “She drives me crazy,” bursting out laughing, to the embarrassment of his wife ­ or to her amusement; it’s hard to tell.

And when the shop owner doesn’t joke around, he talks politics. “Don’t start,” warns his wife, but nothing can stop Abujaudeh.

“I don’t like Hariri,” he admits bluntly, “but anyway I sell the new biography about him.”

And of course, he doesn’t like Solidere, either. That’s probably why he still continues to sell these old postcards. “Beirut is the only city in the world without a downtown,” he affirms.

Of course, according to his nostalgic point of view, everything was better before, in the old days. Beirut used to have a tram. Now, there are just chaotic service drivers. There was the Martyr’s Square. Now, it is no-man’s land. The old opera house in Downtown is now a Virgin Megastore. And so on and so on forth.

But of course Beirut still has Khayat’s Bookshop.

The changes Beirut has seen and even Bliss Street itself have been major since Khayat first opened its doors in the 1930s. Though Abujuadeh wasn’t there then he has witnessed many of the changes of this evolving city.

The building where Abujaudeh houses his store used to be the stables for the horses of American University of Beirut students coming from the mountains in the 1930s. Anis Khayat, the first owner, was a professor at the AUB. Somehow, students and university staff always asked him for books. One day, he decided to open a bookstore to sell scientific books to the university and it was he who turned the stables into a salesroom.

After Khayat passed away his two sons took over and became the exclusive distributors in Lebanon of such famous tomes as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Abujaudeh became a partner in the 1970s when the brothers faced financial problems and at the height of the war in 1981 he bought the shop outright, keeping the original name.

“No, that’s not right,” he corrects. “My wife bought

the store.”

The couple purchased the shop with the books inside, of course. But due to the former owners’ debts, the court confiscated nearly all the books as payment and the store was literally empty. Luckily, Abujaudeh still had his wholesale storage in Hamra and he brought all the books from there as well as purchasing new.

That was the first of number of setbacks the couple had to face with new business. During the war, they had to face the prospect of traveling from East to West Beirut, from their residence to their work.

They lived in Hotel Dieu in East Beirut, but Khayat’s was on Bliss in the heart of West Beirut and they were not allowed to cross the Green Line easily.

“Our employees had the keys, and whenever we weren’t there, and they sold something, they put the money in their pockets,” recalls Yvonne Abujaudeh. Moreover, their warehouse in Hamra was taken over by militias  and all the books were stolen. “At that time, we (our business) survived because we provided reference books to all major universities,” she recalled.

Many things have changed since then. Her husband used to go regularly to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the biggest in the world, and he used to bring schoolbooks from abroad to the French- and English-speaking high schools and colleges.

“When the war started, I wanted to go to Italy,” Yvonne continues, “Because I knew that a religious war would be a dirty war.”

But her husband refused. He would have been the last person to leave Lebanon.

“This was an imported war,” Habib Abujaudeh says.  “My relatives died abroad,” he explains. “If we had all left Lebanon, the same thing would have happened to us as to the Palestinians!”

It’s still a hot topic of conversation for the couple. “So that’s why you made an entire family suffer,” his wife objects. “And now our daughters don’t have a future here.”

But as much as there was hardship during the war there was also unexpected help. One morning when a bomb exploded in AUB, which had also destroyed the windows of Khayat’s, some friends of Abujaudeh’s daughters came, put chairs in front of it and sat on them to protect the shop from looters.

“There was a family atmosphere in Bliss Street,” Yvonne Abujaudeh recalls. “Malek was a barber, in Benetton, there was another bookstore. Uncle Sam was the only fast-food place.”

Today things have changed. Bliss Street has become a crowded fast-food place for busy students. Khayat’s bookstore is the only oasis of calm remaining from former times, where customers and friends come in, take their time in selecting books, sit and have a coffee with the owner and his wife and listen to Abujaudeh ‘s jokes.

He now specializes in selling antique books that are not available in regular bookshops. “Often, foreigners who lived here in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s come to my shop,” he says. “The other day, a former professor of AUB passed by, searching for one of his old publications. I still had his book here,” says the shop owner.

“The only problem now is that Habib likes to come (to work) late,” his wife admits. “He doesn’t like to get up early in the morning.”

He has certainly kept his vivid spirit, however.

“The other day, a Swiss banker came in and wanted to make some photocopies,” he recalls. The man was supposed to give a lecture about the great Lebanese banking system. “I told him that there is no banking system in Lebanon. Some days later, the banker passed by again and said that he held a lecture about Lebanon’s lack of professional banking!”

Two new customers interrupt our conversation.

“Do you have books,” one of them wants to know.

“Did you hear this question,” Habib’s wife whispers, leaning over the counter. “Every day, someone comes in and asks this stupid question. Do you have books?”





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