This Madaba bookstore gives travelers another reason to visit

Books fill shelves inside Kawan Bookstore on April 1, 2021. (Photo: Jason Ruffin/JNews)
AMMAN — Before he covered his cream-colored 1974 Mercedes in books, and before he entertained royalty at his shop, Ghaith Bahdousheh would put on a different suit every day, shave, and go to his nine to five as a risk analyst at an insurance company in Amman. اضافة اعلان

The work “didn’t fit me and my ambitions,” he said. So, after sifting through a bookshop in downtown Amman one day, Ghaith said he began to wonder why he had to commute all the way to Amman to buy books. He decided to open his own shop, and traded in the suit and clean shave for flip-flops and a beard.

Kawon Bookstore, which started out as a shop on wheels before settling down in a 150-year-old building in 2019, sits on the edge of Madaba’s historic district. When it was first launched, it was the first and only bookstore in town. Now some of the stationary stores have begun to sell books, and some businesses deliver locally, but Kawon (universe) has found its niche, not just selling books but operating a café and becoming community gathering place. 

Since the rise of big box stores and later online shopping and Amazon, independent bookstores have seen their sales dwindle. The situation for these small urban oases took another bleak turn with COIVD-19. Although official numbers in Jordan are nonexistent, the American Booksellers Association said that one independent bookstore closed every week in the US during the pandemic.

“We have witnessed a drop in sales in general” amid the pandemic, Ghaith said, which has partly been made up for by more locals coming through the shop. Sales during some months actually increased and it’s largely been “give and take”.  

In a town with an itinerary that’s traditionally been dominated by churches and mosaics, the bookshop offers travelers and locals something different, attracting bibliophiles who used to come straight from the airport before the pandemic, according to Ghaith. Others sometimes stay for an art residency.

On a Thursday afternoon, people lounged around the bookshop’s café and swung on hammocks in the garden, while outside; the shuffle to stock up on food and supplies before the Friday lockdown was well underway.

Inside, past the orange tree in the courtyard and through the massive door leading into the former home, light filtered in through the windows and soaked wooden shelves covered in tomes from floor to ceiling. Books written in Arabic, English, Spanish, German, French, and Icelandic sat behind handwritten signs telling readers where they could find text in their native tongue.

“It just feels like a retreat, it’s a very inspiring place,” said Nicole Carter, an Australian artist in residence at Kawon. She and her husband first visited the shop on the way to a hiking trip, but ended falling in love with the place and eventually moving to Madaba, she said.

“It’s amazingly peaceful, it just felt like a retreat, it’s a very relaxed space,” she said of the shop, sighing and peering around at the text covering the walls. “I’ve spent hours just looking at the bookshop and just being in the garden.”

The shop has garnered a dedicated following since its opening in 2019, and Ghaith said he plans to continue expanding and eventually turn the shop into a cultural center, where he can host local artists and exhibitions. He is also working on establishing a weeks-long art festival in Madaba. If either of these were to happen, it would give ruin-weary travelers another reason to visit the sleepy town. 

“The concept of revolving (the shop) around the community,” is what attracts people to the shop,” said Ghaith. “We don’t just sell books; or food, or coffee.”

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