Founded by Maxine Meilleur, Better Books & Café, located in the basement of a building in residential Salmiya, Kuwait is a cross between a library and a regular bookstore. As in a library, you will find books of rarity, classics, out-of-print books, titles and authors that probably our parents (and grandparents!) raved about, contemporary books, and just about every genre allowed in the country. Also similar to a library, you have the liberty to browse and read on the premises, without having to pay a dime upon departure – unless, of course, you make a purchase. Like a bookstore, it sustains itself on basis of sales, so no loaning of books, and the prices are so modest that you don’t feel like you’re paying a lot.
Affordably priced, even unused books, every purchase you make is undoubtedly a bargain at Better Books! If like me, work or family has kept you busy and you missed a few years of reading, then Better Books is the place to go and indulge. Better Books is also a good opportunity for college and high school students seeking internships. Maxine raved about many of her interns who now hold great jobs in Kuwait or attend fine universities all over the world.
According to Maxine, “Better Books is built on the concept of saving and recycling books, which is hard for people here to understand, but some do get the point.” Read and return can be an attractive proposition.
Maxine credits her time with Q8Books in the realization of Better Books. It was while she worked there, that an idea for a bookstore that not only provides books, but also doubles up as a community center, began to appeal to Maxine. A few years later and with a small collection of books, she started Better Books & Café.
Today, she finds herself surrounded by over 10,000 books (and many more in boxes waiting to go on shelves) acquired through donations, trade-ins, or picked up at seasonal bazaars. “Whenever I travel, I utilize my maximum baggage limit for books,” added Maxine, who by the way has penned her own historical fiction and is presently seeking a publisher.
As a community center, two spacious studios at Better Books currently offer aerobics, yoga, salsa and bachata classes, as well as host Toastmasters and Gavel Clubs. “We also had Expat Moms group doing story-time for children. This not only helps in promoting the bookstore, but also contributes to its maintenance financially,” explained Maxine, who in her own words is more of an entrepreneur than a librarian.
I asked Maxine how she would describe the store in her words. After a brief thought, she replied, “It’s a used books store with a community approach.” She willingly answered some more questions for us.
What is involved in running a place like Better Books, other than the usual?
Attention to detail. Even I have to walk around the store occasionally to reacquaint myself with what is where. The place has made me more agile and flexible in the 2 years I have spent running it.
How many visitors do you get in a day?
(Laughs) Oh, I stopped counting! I used to keep track, but after awhile, it got to me. There were days we saw any number of visitors, and there were days the count was unsettling. When, I started turning up at a profit, I was content with the traffic I got.
What kind of readership do you target?
Children, mainly. We stock a good number of books in our children section. Among adult readers, our clientele includes expatriates, as well as Kuwaitis, who are mostly students and professionals.
Apart from being economical, what other advantage customers have for buying from Better Books?
We accept trade-in of books purchased from us, provided the book is in resalable condition, and give a 50% credit note of the selling value.
Do you accept customer based orders for titles not on stock?
Yes, as long as you are willing to wait for at least 3 weeks.
What are your plans for Better Books in the future?
To have more activities and to increase the number of high demand books on stock. I am also planning to hold monthly or quarterly bazaars as part of our community activities.
— I thanked Maxine and was on my way out when I noticed a stack of books on a table to my left. One of it was The Apple, a compilation of reviews written about the sensational 1975 exhibition by the pioneering Kuwaiti artist Khalifa Al Qattan – a very controversial book at the time of its publishing! Similarly, numerous collectable books, such as those written and signed by Col. H.R.P. Dickson, his wife Dame Violet Dickson and their daughter Zahra Freeth, are also available at Better Books.
American writer Justin Winsor once said, "A collection of good books, with a soul to it in the shape of a librarian, becomes a vitalized power among the impulses by which the world goes on to improvement."
That is what I sensed at Better Books & Café, and I hope with time, it keeps getting better.
Better Books & Café is located in Salmiya, Block 10 (behind Al Rashid Hospital and near Gulfmart) and is open from 10 AM to 8 PM throughout the week. For inquiries or info, log on to their Facebook Page or email them at email@example.com; Tel: (+965) 66637351
– Shabana H. Shaikh