The Times Kuwait Report
This article was first published in The Times Kuwait on April 14, 2013
Nestled away in a corner of one of Kuwait’s busiest suburbs of Salmiya is a community goldmine that has only just started getting the attention it deserves. Better Books and Café in its very essence is so much more than a bookstore.
The heart of the establishment runs on the joys of reading. With over 25,000 used and new books, of which almost half are for children, it houses everything from encyclopedias to comics. The store, however, has a unique twist — it allows their customers to return books they have bought for half its value in-store credit.
Walking down the stairs into the basement store transports visitors to a place like none other in Kuwait. With rows upon rows of neatly arranged and categorized books in all sizes and colors for all ages, even an occasional reader would be pleased. For avid readers, Better Books is paradise.
Maxine Meilleure, the co-owner of Better Books has combined her love of books and reading with her passion of encouraging youth to indulge in this waning habit. “I have been in Kuwait for 20 years now and have had several startup business ideas, but this is the only one that came through, probably because of how strongly I felt about it.”
The store duly boasts budget books which range from KD 1 – KD 3 in all genres — enough to satisfy any bookworm without serious dents to the wallet. This especially caters to younger readers who can afford to spend and recycle their allowances many times over for a far greater value.
“With ridiculously high prices for books in Kuwait, it’s only natural that people would be discouraged to read,” Maxine said, “Better Books actually tries to revive the reading culture that has been lost over a generation.”
Comfortable beanbags dot the carpeted center of the store, where parents and their children sit together reading. The family-centric concept is a goal that Better Books brings to the foreground effortlessly by encouraging parents to come in with their children for some quality time together.
At no charge, you can take your little ones and introduce them to the beauty of books, opening up a window of opportunities. Older children can spend time in the ‘Read and Relax’ areas where tiny rooms have been set up for some quiet reading.
Co-owner Sandeep Chabba added, “We used to have kids come in and stand for a good hour in the aisles reading a book they probably couldn’t purchase. That’s when we decided to set up a space to encourage young minds to continue expanding, at no cost.”
Customers seemed to have only compliments for the values of the establishment; they appreciated the fact that Better Books are inculcating a habit of reading among the young. Many of the regulars knew exactly what they are looking for and can tell a great book from a good book, picking up the best for their young ones.
Maxine says she likes getting to know her customers well. “I’m always interested in what they pick and based on that we recommend other books that they would like. I also encourage them to bring books back to keep the cycle going,” she said. Better Books also accepts books you may want to give away and will offer you store credit for them after conducting an assessment. Although new books ship in every week, customers can also request a book by special order that they will then arrange for.
Over time Maxine says she has gotten savvier about which books sell and which stay on the shelves and has gotten choosier about books that come in. Despite having back rooms filled with books to categorize and assess, Maxine is happy to spend some time with the kids who come in. It is not however, a day-care center, she said firmly. Younger children must be accompanied by parents when spending time at the store.
Better Books has evolved into more of a community center in the vicinity since its inception two years ago. Several groups schedule and conduct activities in the spacious halls that are rented out, including Toastmaster groups, gavel clubs, aerobics, yoga and dance classes — all of which keep the place constantly bustling with vibrant activity throughout the week. Better Books has other ongoing projects like Better Fashion, Better Events and Better Parties. There are a few more projects in the pipeline, including Better Bazaars. In the summers, they also provide teens with an internship, teaching them how to run a business, deal with people and money, thereby giving young adults a sense of responsibility.
“For a while, I have noticed that kids in the vicinity are often loitering around because they have nothing to do,” said Sandeep, “They waste so much of their time and are always getting into trouble.”
“Better Books tries to ground them, giving them a place to enjoy spending time in learning and enjoying with friends — one that they can even consider a summer internship at,” he said. Maxine believes that children, as well as grownups, who enjoy reading are so different from the average and Better Books is glad to be part of the development of young minds in the community. There is a reason why it is known as Better Books — it really is a better idea than most of us have had in a very long time.