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Kinokuniya – where better to prepare for Dubai’s literary fest?

The Japanese bookstore is proof of the abiding attraction of paper and ink

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Dubai Emirates Airline
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in February is an annual extravaganza of the intellect

It’s that time of year when Dubai goes all high-brow and cerebral for a few weeks, with the Emirates Airline Literary Festival starting next week, followed by Art Dubai in March. 

Eat your hearts out London, Paris, New York and other so-called cultural capitals.

What better way to prepare for this annual extravaganza of the intellect than a visit to Kinokuniya in Dubai Mall, one of my favourite places in the UAE and a testimony to everything that Dubai gets right in the literary field – with a little help from Japan.

The bookshop was founded in Tokyo nearly a century ago, but has expanded to a worldwide chain of more than 70 stores – in Asia and the USA, plus one each in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Strangely, it has no presence in bibliophile Europe.

I know the printed word is supposed to be a dying art form, but I have always found time spent in a good bookshop to be a balm for the soul.

I used to idle the hours away in the Hampstead branch of Waterstones when I lived in that lovely part of London, and more recently I discovered the delights of Barnes & Noble in the United States, in New York and Los Angeles.

The recent commercial success of both those well-known brands proves to me that the victory of the pervasive screen and keyboard is not entirely complete, and there will always be a place for venerable paper and ink – when it is properly resourced and marketed.

Sure, you can sample a mind-boggling range of quasi-literary products at Kinokuniya, from Star Wars figurines and manga books to exquisite Japanese writing instruments, but words-on-printed-page are at the core of its marketing.

In Dubai it does this superbly. The store is huge – the size of a football training field – and it is easy to get distracted among the treasures on offer. But signage is good and there is a big information desk staffed by knowledgeable and helpful assistants.

Although I often spend a couple of hours just browsing on a weekend afternoon, I was there recently for two specific reasons.

First, I wanted to inquire about a book called Don’t They Know It’s Friday by Jeremy Williams. I first came to Dubai nearly two decades ago, and found it very useful as a guide to “cross-cultural considerations” (as it blurbed) in the Arabian Gulf. I wanted to see how it had stood the test of time in a rapidly changing region.

The assistant answered that question quickly. “It was taken away when they changed the UAE weekend,” she smiled. Gap in the market, I thought.

My other quest that day was to get hold of a copy of The Prophet’s Song by Paul Lynch, winner of the 2023 Booker Prize. No problem there: the book was prominently displayed with other Booker shortlist titles among “Bestsellers”, incongruously close to a self-help book by Arnold Schwarzenegger and the new Barbara Streisand autobiography.

Lynch is appearing in person at the Dubai literary festival and, having read the book – a dark tale of life in Ireland after a right-wing coup set in the near future – I have only one question: what has he got against paragraphs and quote marks? Call me old-fashioned, but …

I have only two minor gripes about Kinokuniya.

There are too many business self-help books, all apparently offering you foolproof advice on how to simultaneously achieve inward karma and Musk-level riches. I personally never wanted to know how Richard Branson lost his virginity, and still don’t. Each to his own, I suppose.

The other whine is that the shop does not react quicky enough to world events. It must be missing a revenue opportunity here.

After the two biggest global disasters of recent years – the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the outbreak of the Gaza carnage – I rushed to Kinokuniya to mug up on the essential historical background, but was disappointed. In each case, it took the management several weeks to catch up.

On Gaza, at least, they have more than made up for it now, with impressive displays covering every aspect of the conflict.

You could not write about books in Dubai without a tip of the hat to Isobel Abulhoul, who kicked the whole thing off in 1975 when she launched Magrudy’s, catering to generations of expats and their children. She was also the driving force behind the establishment of the Dubai literature festival in 2009.

There are still Magrudy stores in the emirate, but not of the same scale and prominence as Kinokuniya.

I think Isobel should revive the brand with a splash relaunch in a big flagship location. Perhaps Mall of the Emirates, where there is only a Virgin and Borders at the moment? Both are increasingly offering books only as a sideline to toys and electronic gadgets these days.

It’s about time somebody gave the marvelous Kinokuniya a serious run for its money.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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