The Cheikh Bookstore: One of Few Still Standing in Algeria
There are very few historical bookstores to be found in Algeria, and one of them is the Cheikh Bookstore (Librairie Cheikh) located in Tizi Ouzou. Hosting books and writers, the bookstore’s history dates back to the 1930s when it was founded by the grandfather of its present owner, Omar Cheikh. And as it was during the French colonial presence in the country, the avenue on which it was built initially had a colonial name, Ferdinand-Aillaud Avenue, which became the Abane Ramdane Avenue after independence in 1962.
Besides my love for books, it is its resilience to survive that makes the bookstore one of my favorite places. Over the decades, it had to navigate very turbulent times and remain open through many rapid changes occurring in the country—from the French occupation to the War of Liberation and subsequent independence, and from the Berbers’ protests to the civil war—a feat Omar Cheikh is proud of as he recalls the wave of nationalization initiated by then-Algerian president Houari Boumédiène in the 1970s, a particularly troubling time for him as it was a threat to the bookstore’s freedom in the books it acquired and sold. “Despite the nationalization of Boumédiène, though, my father’s library still operated independently,” he said, as above all he values freedom when it comes to the place he inherited from his father and started running in 1984.
Freedom is not the only thing troubling Omar Cheikh’s mind, though; he is also anxious about the future of the bookstore after he is gone—and about the difficulties in keeping one open. “On Abane Ramdane Avenue, unfortunately, so many bookstores shut down,” he says. “I don’t know what will happen in the future.” So, to keep up with rising expenses and thinning numbers of new readers, the Cheikh Bookstore opted to sell textbooks in addition to stationery items in the bookstore’s ground floor way back in 1986.
To get inside the bookstore, one must climb a very narrow staircase that leads to an expansive room from which floods an impression of peace and bygone days. And that even to someone who did not have prior knowledge of the store’s long history, as the walls are generously decorated with old photos of the building, its past owners, and the writers it hosted as well as old newspaper excerpts written about it over the decades. After roving one’s eyes over these historical archives on display alongside some ancient Berber items, it is difficult to make a choice from the vast range of books on the shelves and bookstands. There are new, recent, and classic books in the four main languages of the country: Tamazight, Arabic, French, and English.
These rich offerings are not the only things book lovers can expect. Deeply committed to the Algerian literary world, the bookstore often hosts both debut and renowned authors and poets for book signings and readings. The owner cited to me the most memorable to him: “We had Yasmina Khadra, Ali Yahia Abdennour, Hakim Lalaâm, Ali Dilem, Youcef Merahi.” More recently, the Cheikh Bookstore hosted the poet Samira Negrouche and the author Farida Sahoui, and is preparing to have many more meet readers later in the year.