I love books. And I love bookstores. The cute tiny ones tucked away in a side street, the massive big-brand ones with multiple rooms filled floor-to-ceiling, and anything in between. I love wandering the aisles, perusing the shelves – finding old favourite books, looking for titles that come strongly recommended, chancing upon new surprises that might find a place in your heart once you get acquainted. (In the interest of full disclosure, my dream rom-com movie meet-cute would be when you see someone at a bookstore and both of you reach for the same book; that kind of chemistry is way more appealing than the tired ‘guy sees girl across the room at a pub and sends over a drink’ cliché. But, I digress.) Spending hours in bookstores has always been one of my go-to happy places.
And then, about 18 months ago, I moved to a country where there are still bookstores (albeit no online book shopping sites, an almost anachronistic reversal;) however, they sell books, almost exclusively, in the 2 main languages used here (French and Arabic,) and not English. I knew this when I decided to move to Tunis. I made my peace with it; even gave in and bought myself a “practical” e-book reader. (It doesn’t hold a candle to that gorgeous feeling of holding a book in your hand. If you know, you know.) However, the universe was clearly amused at my plight and helped me discover 2 bookstores (thus far,) that have a selection of books in English. And, by a selection, I mean a shelf of English books. One shelf. Singular.
The collection on this singular set of shelves is rather eclectic. It is not uncommon to find books by James Patterson, Sophie Kinsella, Haruki Murakami, Danielle Steele and Lou Dobbs lying side-by-side. There is no way to know what books might be coming in the next shipment or when that might arrive; in one of the shops, the English books aren’t even part of the online catalogue. There’s definitely no way to hunt down a particular book or set of titles you’re looking for, or have them ordered for you. You can’t really make your own wishlist and go shopping. What you see on the shelves is what you have to choose from.
And somehow, there’s been something quite liberating about this approach to book shopping. Sure, there’s plenty on my reading list that I cannot find here, and I wish I could. However, I’ve taken myself repeatedly to both these stores (because there aren’t enough words to explain how much I love reading physical versions of books;) and, in doing so, I’ve stumbled onto some incredible pieces of literature I’d probably have not known to go looking for. I picked up Stardust, a collection of poems by the young Tunisian poet Rania Attafi, and was fascinated by the simultaneous feminist and existential layers in her poetry. I fell in love with Amin Maalouf’s writing when I read the enchantingly lyrical and endearing Ports of Call and can’t wait to get my hands on another one of his books. I read my first Jodi Picoult novel and bawled my eyes out through most of Sing You Home. I (re)read Toni Morrison’s Home after decades and it brought the nostalgia of my college Literature degree years tearing back. I have all 3 books of The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz and 2 books by Jojo Moyes waiting for me on my desk – both, authors whose writing I’ve never read before and am now incredibly curious to explore.
Choice is an interesting construct. As a reader, I’ve love to go after the books on my list that I know I want to read. I’d have thought I’d enjoy those books more. But, in not being able to do that, I’ve ended up with a whole different set of books that were, perhaps, also meant to make their way to me. I didn’t go to the bookstore with the intention to buy any of them. And still, each of those books has left me so much better off, so much richer, for having read them. Choice really is an interesting construct. Sometimes, you choose the books you read. And sometimes, the books choose you.