Located in Tangier, the Librairie des Colonnes is a Moroccan literary institution that has been known to attract major writers from all over the world, including Samuel Beckett, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. Today, the bookstore remains a vital part of literary life in Morocco and beyond through not only the wide variety of books it offers in numerous languages, but also through its role as a publishing house and through Nejma, its affiliated literary magazine.
In this feature, we speak with bookstore director Simon-Pierre Hamelin about the store’s past and present, and the work he’s doing now to create literary and cultural links between the global centers of Arabic publishing.
The Librairie des Colonnes is a Moroccan institution, dating back to 1949. Can you tell us more about the bookstore’s history, and how it has changed over the years?
The Librairie des Colonnes is a bit of an institution and has always set the tone for intellectuals in Tangier. It is located on the main thoroughfare that has cut through the city for over 60 years. Opened as an outpost of the French publisher Gallimard, the bookshop on Boulevard Pasteur came to be associated with the long list of writers who made the city of the Strait of Gibraltar their home either permanently or for a short time.
The Librairie des Colonnes opened in 1949, at a time when Tangier was a magnet for people the world over. The bookstore quickly became a meeting spot and focal point of the city, attracting commanding literary figures such as Tennessee Williams, Paul & Jane Bowles, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Juan Goytisolo, Joe Orton, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Truman Capote, while encouraging a generation of writers and artists in the city nestled on the Strait of Gibraltar. Used by Gallimard to showcase its latest publications, and by Mohamed Choukri and Tahar ben Jelloun as a reading room, the bookstore became a sanctuary for the minds and spirits of Tangier residents, as well as travellers passing through the city. Tangier is the ideal location for the bookshop, as this city has always had a nucleus of intellectuals and writers. This is where they have always met.
At the beginning of this century, the bookshop was nearly vanishing because of the former owner’s lack of interest—it looked more like a museum than a bookshop. I knew I wanted to revive it as a cultural center in Tangier by organizing book launches, readings, exhibitions, and more. Around that time, we also created Nejma, the literary review, and our publishing house. In 2010, a famous cultural sponsor (Pierre Bergé, who also founded the fashion label Yves Saint Laurent) expressed an interested in further developing these projects, and he bought the bookshop. We then began to develop a literary Arabic and English section, publish more books, and organize literary festivals.
What’s the atmosphere of the store like today? What does it look like when you walk in?
The bookstore nowadays feels very open to the street because of its big front windows, which fill the store with light. Six days a week, from 10 AM to 8 PM, we are prepared to host customers and readers, and we can do so more comfortably now than before the store’s rebuilding in 2010. When you walk in, you can smell immediately the nice fragrance of cedar wood, which the bookshelves are made of. The framed pictures of famous writers who used to come to the bookstore like Mohamed Choukri, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, Juan Goytisolo, Marguerite Yourcenar – just to name a few of them — overlook the bookshop.
In addition to being a bookstore, the Librairie des Colonnes is also a publishing house. In this capacity, what is your mission? What kinds of books are you interested in publishing?
At present, we’ve already published 14 titles in several languages (Arabic, French, English, Spanish. . . and even some bilingual books) connected with the literature of Tangier and Morocco. I consider this important because there is still a lack of books by Moroccan writers published in their mother tongue or in translation. All our books are being distributed worldwide to show how modern and rich Moroccan literature really is. We wanted to see links set up between the centres of Arabic publishing in countries around the Mediterranean — Beirut, Algiers, Cairo — and, of course, Tangier.
Tangier has long been a point of intersection for many different civilizations and cultures. Do you see this quality of the city reflected in your bookstore, both in the types of books sold and in the store’s patrons?
To reflect the fact of many languages existing in Tangier side by side, we offer books in Arabic, French, English, Spanish, German, and try to offer a wide selection of classics and newly published books from Morocco and the rest of the world.
Your event calendar offers numerous opportunities for cultural and artistic conversation. As a bookstore, why is it important to you to foster these kinds of dialogues? More broadly, how do you see yourselves shaping and participating in the literary and artistic community in Tangier and beyond?
I believe books should be not only read but also discussed; there is a special quality in literary gatherings – the fact that people meet and spend time together by enjoying some great thoughts and ideas is very precious. Authors' readings can also be great sources of inspiration, and can encourage us to dive deeper into the worlds of their writings later on.
Simon-Pierre, during your time as the bookstore’s director, you’ve created an affiliation between the Librairie des Colonnes and the Nejma literary review. Can you tell us more about Nejma and its relationship to the bookstore?
Founded in 2006, the review Nejma, which means “star” in Arabic, focuses on the publication of the writings of authors from Tangier, Morocco, as well as from the wider Mediterranean area, thus drawing attention to their significance. Individual Nejma issues frequently feature previously unpublished texts in multiple languages as well as emerging translations. Many of these texts constitute – especially in these turbulent times – possible bridges between opposing views and different cultures. The 10th issue, published in spring 2018, is dedicated to the turbulent relations and cultural links between Morocco and Algeria of past decades and present time.
Which books in the store are you most excited about right now? Any recommendations?
The books which are on my mind right now – and which you can discover in our bookshop – are, for example, the novel The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, Tangier: A Literary Guide for Travellers by Josh Shoemake, the excellent classic Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, the Tangerian novel For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri or Salvation Army by Abdellah Taïa. . . And last but not least Naked Lunch by William Burroughs – an experimental work written just few hundred meters from the bookshop in the still-open Hotel Muniria.
Want to learn more?
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54 boulevard Pasteur, Tangier, Morocco
tel. +212 5399-36955