The Way In book shop, once an oasis of quiet in a street full of chaos, closes its doors after 51 years

The Way In book shop, once an oasis of quiet in a street full of chaos, closes its doors after 51 years

The entry way to the Way In book shop. (Credit: Ziad Saber)

BEIRUT — “Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods,” the novelist John Updike wrote in a 2006 New York Times essay. As of yesterday, Beirut lost one such fort and now has one less book-filled beacon lightening up its solemn streets. The iconic Hamra mainstay the Way In permanently closed its door after 51 years.

“This past week has simultaneously been the worst and the best,” owner Ziad Saber tells L’Orient Today in the now eerily empty shop. He stares at the handful of books still left, determined to put up a fight and lure in the last few customers — not to make a little more profit, but to say his goodbyes and elongate the place’s lifespan with a bit more chatter, a few more memories. “Deciding to close has been the hardest thing I ever had to do, but people’s emotional reactions to it has now become my favorite memory.”

In 1971, Saber’s father opened one of the first (“if not the first, but I’m not sure”) bookshops in Hamra during what Saber refers to as the beloved neighborhood’s “best years.” It would be four years before Lebanon’s devastating Civil War would erupt and, at the time, Hamra was considered to be the city’s beating heart, a beacon of culture. Its streets dotted with theaters, cafes, cinemas and restaurants, it was not only the place where Beirut’s intelligentsia gathered, but anyone who lived in the city, no matter their socioeconomic background or which neighborhood they were from.

There was always something magical about drowning in the cacophony of Hamra main street before walking down those stairs that led to the Way In, which seemed like another dimension, an oasis of contemplative quiet in a street, a city, a country full of hyper-lived life.

Beyond its unique entrance, the Way In was also known for its eclectic collection of European and American newspapers and magazines, and even an array of academic journals, such as the Journal of Palestine Studies and the Jerusalem Quarterly, which gave one a small glimpse into the socially engaged fabric of not just the store and its customers but its famously activist neighborhood.

The entrance of the Way In bookshop pictured in 1978. (Credit: OLJ archives)

The capitol of a weak state with undeniable cosmopolitanism allure, many of the region’s wordsmiths flocked to Beirut, and especially Hamra, which provided, at least temporarily, a safe haven for dissidents and activists, attracting such intellectual giants as philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and Palestinian forces of nature Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish, all of whom once called the city their home.

For 51 years, the Way In has never changed its name, location or owner. Nor will it now. Saber spent months trying to come up with a solution to keep the shop open but, he says, since he’s leaving Lebanon and his parents are not able to run the store anymore, the very component that endeared it to so many people would be missing: family. “It’s the one thing that people keep mentioning these past few months,” Saber says. “This was more than just a bookshop to them, it was a home.”

That’s definitely how Karma Ekmeji, “a real Ras Beirut girl,” remembers the place. “It was a huge part of my teenage years, I used to drag my mom to Way In every Saturday to buy magazines. And they always recognized me and knew what I came in to buy.”

Ekmeji adds that the shop’s large collection of foreign magazines was a huge element of its appeal to her and her friends. Her memories of the shops are intertwined with the magic of a simpler time without social media. “I was a huge Take That fan and this was before the internet, so these magazines were our weekly or monthly fix of celebrity gossip, not to mention you’d have these posters folded inside to decorate your room.”

Many others also have fond memories of visiting the shop as teens. “When I was a freshman at AUB in 1998 and I was a naive commie teenager. I had a surface level understanding of leftist ideology and didn’t really understand it beyond being pro-workers rights,” a loyal customer tells L’Orient Today. “One day I walked in for some stationary but there it was, the perfect poster to decorate my dorm room: Che Guevara.”

Ekmeji says she’s surprised that the bookstore managed to hold out for so long, not just because of the myriad crises that have plagued the country since 2019, but also because, she says “people don’t seem to read anymore, they’re too tired to read beyond 240 characters in Twitter.”

While that may be the case, Saber says that dwindling profits due to the financial crisis were not the main reason to decide to close up shop. “It was actually still doing quite well … not like before of course but we were still making a profit. The reason is not the current situation but that which awaits us.” Saber believes the country needs at least five years to get out of its financial crisis, and time is a luxury he, and many others, cannot afford.

“I did a lot of research before making this decision and I can tell you, books are not dead. Not even in Lebanon. But what awaits Lebanon [in] the next six months is hell. And who will have money to spend on books when they’re in hell?” Saber asks.

But then he defiantly adds: “I blame the dawle [state] from A-Z. Since 30-40 years, I blame them. Not just for this but for Lebanon losing its cultural side, its people. A bookshop should never close. They made me leave the country and close this beautiful piece of art.”

When a reporter from L’Orient Today, after a recent visit to the shop, posted on Twitter that it would close at the end of February, the news spread like wildfire. People from all ages and neighborhoods and living in an array of countries were quick to share their shock and sadness upon hearing of the closure of what many consider a mainstay.

“I went there last July a day after my arrival to Beirut since it’s one of my fave bookstores in Hamra. There was no electricity, the shelves were almost empty, & the employee was frustrated & apologetic. I often think about that day & now I wish I bought one last book from there,” Nour Hijazi wrote on Twitter.

It wasn’t just Beirutis or Lebanese who were visibly upset to hear about the imminent closure of Way In, many foreigners, from those who lived here to those who merely visited as tourists, chimed in.

Sebastian Usher bid adieu to “another landmark to go in Hamra” by writing “Way In Bookshop used to feel like Aladdin's Cave - especially with its American paperback editions that felt so excitingly alien to someone from England.”

Swiss journalist Marguerite Meyer tells L’Orient Today that she bought her first Levantine Colloquial Arabic Vocabulary book there and remembers thinking: “Now I’ve arrived! I can do this!” While she says her Arabic is still miserable, “the book keeps me a little motivated every time I open it.”

As if to emphasize Saber’s point that the Way In’s legacy was so much more than merely a shop, many also took to social media to mourn what they saw as a lost community and to share memories of happier times.

“It has existed since long before the war,” someone recalled fondly. “I remember peeling the castana [chestnuts] with Richard and Dom in front of the window, carelessly dropping the peel in front of the store which earned us a stern look from inside.”

Others saw its closure as a symbol of what many Lebanese consider the erosion of Lebanon’s social and cultural fabric in the face of economic collapse. “Good people won’t last in this kind of situation ... it’s a moral pollution,” Rola Costa Sowan wrote.

“Watching Beirut disintegrate and lose some its fixtures like this bookstore, a sign of times, bookstores generally disappear in the world, but oh so sad as one clings to a city that is ceasing to exist as many have known it for decades,” Tamara Al Rifai lamented.

“Another victim of the political class in Lebanon,” another Twitter user said scornfully.

“It wasn’t until we decided to close that we realized how people were strongly linked to this bookshop and its cultural significance,” Saber says. That the shop was such a fixed feature in so many people’s memories of Hamra might have something to do with the fact that in 51 years, the shop never closed its doors, aside from the month-long lockdown in 2020 due to corona. “Even during the 15 years of [civil] war, when [the] east and west[of the capital] weren’t linked, it was always open. People would still come in from all over Beirut.”

Ziad Mansour fondly recalls crossing the Green Line, which demarcated the division of the capital between warring factions during the 1975-90 Civil War, and heading to Hamra, during the first few years of the war. “It wasn’t such a big deal to us, maybe because we had the arrogance and fearlessness only beholden to youth,” Mansour says. “I remember meeting my friend at the Way In, we’d flip through international magazines so we could fantasize about a world beyond Beirut.” Mansour says he could never afford to buy anything, but “the captain,” which is what everyone called the owner, he says, would never admonish him or his friends. “He knew we had so little back then, he was a good guy.”

As Saber insists that the main driver behind the success of the shop, besides its loyal and loving customers, is his family’s personal touch, he says that for as long as he is trying his luck abroad, the shop won’t reopen. However, he adds, with a twinkle in his eye, if the situation in Lebanon allows “it would still be my preferred way to spend my retirement. Reopen this shop and continue to make memories.”

The interior of the Way In book shop. (Credit: Ziad Saber)

BEIRUT — “Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods,” the novelist John Updike wrote in a 2006 New York Times essay. As of yesterday, Beirut lost one such fort and now has one less book-filled beacon lightening up its solemn streets. The iconic Hamra mainstay the Way In permanently closed its door after 51 years.“This past week has...