Books Editor Yasmin Mannan interviews the owners of the Alexandria Library, a new literary addition to Curry Mile
Walking home from university along the infamous Curry Mile, you may have noticed that a new player in the Manchester literature scene has arrived. The Alexandria Library, having opened only on July 14th this year, is a specialist secondhand and new bookshop which is making an impact on the Manchester literature scene already. One afternoon walking home, a slither of gold Arabic script was glistening in the window and I knew that I had to find out what this new addition to the Curry Mile was all about. I was kindly given an interview by the owner of the shop, Josh, and the overseer, John, to discover more about what their thoughts behind the Alexandria Library were.
When asked about the concept behind the shop, Josh said that it’s simply “something different—there is no place in that you can get this variety of literature in Arabic and Urdu anywhere else in Manchester.” John further highlighted how the shop was funded by the local Arabic church and a number of South Asian Churches, too, who wanted to showcase their significance in Arabic and Asian cultural heritage. John had said that the input from the churches were “essential to creating the blend of the shop” and that it was a space which allowed Arabic Christians from Syria and Iraq, along with South Asian Christians to have a voice. The location for both of them is key as “people had told us to open in Didsbury, saying that the Curry Mile was no place for a bookshop like this,” but they were determined to be situated on the famous strip anyway.
The Alexandria Library stocks both secondhand books—including poetry collections, language books, and novels—as well as new contemporary literature which is often brought back directly from Egypt or taken from suggestions from interested readers who come into the shop. John highlighted the struggle of competing with Amazon but say that their secondhand collection often has trumped against Amazon’s—especially in such a niche market. A lot of students who are currently working on their dissertations or researching into Arabic or South Asian culture have been found to come in seeking language books and tips about learning Arabic—John himself has done an Urdu Leap course at the University of Manchester, as well as being fluent in Arabic after living in Sudan for many years.
The shop also facilitates a lot of cultural activities and connections between people. Both Josh and John emphasised how the churches run groups such as free English conversation classes for local people who want to better their English. There is also a Kurdish Book Club, too, who meet upstairs in the shop. Even though it has only opened in July, the Alexandria Library is rapidly becoming a pillar in the local community. John told me how he has had people coming in, asking him how to “crack English society,” as well as having local artists coming in to ask if they could exhibit their work. Josh and John are both keen to attract writers to do poetry readings which fit in with the shop’s ethos.
People at the shop are very willing to help students who wish to learn Arabic or want to learn more about Arabic and South Asian culture. It seems to attract a very diverse range of people such as Syrian refugees who volunteer there, representatives from the church, and also people like myself who are generally interested in literature and suffer vaguely from a cultural identity crisis which they express in writing. As someone whose Pakistani parents had never taught me Urdu but enjoys writing in many forms, I was automatically drawn to the what the Alexandria Library is doing and the space it is creating for anyone interested in the literature and culture of that region—especially during this time of having a sharpened international political climate, misinformation and demonization stemming from some strands of the mainstream media. Cultural spaces like the Alexandria Library are multilayered in the roles they play in society. I would definitely recommend popping in.