One of the first things to understand about locating books in Cairo is to always note not just the title and author but also the publisher’s name, as book distribution is often determined by the capacities of the individual publishers, given the relative absence of distribution companies.
Most of the private publishing houses (many of which have their own bookstores) and stand-alone bookstores that focus on contemporary literature and poetry have traditionally been centered in the downtown area, and the books published by these publishers are often hard to find outside that same geographical space. Generally most bookstores will have selections from the biggest names or most popular releases (Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Alaa Al-Aswany, Ahmed Mourad…), regardless of who the publisher is, but rarely can you go to one bookstore and be reasonably sure they will have everything you’re looking for. Looking for a particular book in Cairo often involves more than one stop, especially if you’re looking for lesser known writers, a book published a few years ago, or something published by another Arab (non-Egyptian) publisher. In these cases, you’re most likely to find the book sold by the publisher, or in the latter case, with a bookstore you know has a relationship with the non-Egyptian publisher. (For more information about book distribution within the Arab world, check out our page on the Cairo International Book Fair.)
One way of parsing this is to see it as a result of the shift from the largely state-owned and/or sponsored publishing houses and cultural sector of the 50s-60s to the slow emergence of split public-private publishing houses and then the appearance of smaller independent private-sector publishers in the 90s and early 2000s. Starting in the early 2000s, bookstores in the ‘Barnes and Nobles’ sense, that is, larger bookstores that sell books by various publishers and are not themselves publishers, and often with coffee shops attached, started emerging. They attempt to provide a diverse selection, but the bulk of the responsibility for making sure certain books are available in a given bookstore still falls largely on the shoulders of the publishers, and sometimes the writers themselves. Even the shops that carry books by many different publishers may not happen to have the title you’re seeking—again this is cause for a trip to the publishing house itself.
This site can help you do just that. We’ve (very broadly) indexed and mapped the range of book outlets in Cairo, from the newer ‘Barnes and Noble’ style bookstores, to the older bookstores that have traditionally done a very good job of carrying a diverse collection of books (see, Madbouly, for instance), to bookstores run by publishing houses that stock an (often under-representative) variety of publishers, and then there are the bookstores of publishing houses which carry only the titles they publish. There are also cafes (e.g. Kunst) and small bookshops attached to galleries (e.g. Townhouse) and shops (like Abdel Zaher Book Binding) with books for sale by smaller publishers. Selections there are varied but still worth checking out, as are the good number of street vendors who may also be able to help you find what you’re looking for.
Given the relatively small print run of most books published here, you may also have a hard time finding newer books that weren’t published within the past year or two, as they may disappear from bookstore shelves. If the publisher also runs out you may have a very hard time getting a hold of a copy (unless the book is reprinted), and it’s time to start getting to know the used book stalls in Azbakeya.
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