“Is it a gallery or a bookstore;” passersby wonder while facing the minimal aesthetics and artistic vibe of Les Etoiles bookstore’s front window, located in Hassan Quartier, Rabat.
Every book is assorted carefully on the bookstore’s wooden bookshelves, inspired by the simplistic architecture of the Far East. Chinese handmade teapots and cups used for decoration sporadically interrupt the piles of books on the shelves.
A combination of traditional and modern vibrant Chinese paintings depicting nature alongside humans decorate almost every wall of the two-story space.
In the center, one sees a swirling staircase leading up to the second floor that is particularly designed for the younger audiences, home to the children’s collections.
Wooden tables and comfortable chairs with colorful cushions complete the cozy ambiance of the bookstore, as they invite the customers to sit and enjoy their reading and exchange of ideas.
Harmony and symmetry prevail at Les Etoiles, giving off to the customers the impression they have been devoured by an intellectual kingdom that most likely belongs to Asia rather than to North Africa.
Sat on the bookstore’s front desk, greeting the customers with a warm smile, is Yassin Qin, a 23-year-old from Beijing, alongside his five colleagues, all employees at Les Etoiles.
“Most bookstores in Rabat are just selling books, but we are not just a simple bookstore,” Qin told Morocco World News. “We have created a space with tables and chairs where we want to provide coffee and sweets to the people who come here and read our collections, but also organize meetings, like reading clubs and book signing events.”
“Les Etoiles does not only serve the needs of a bookstore, but also of a coffee store and an exhibition center,” he added.
After only two months of operation, Les Etoiles has attracted local readers fond of the Chinese culture seeking to experience its merging with the Arabic and French mentalities.
Every title in the bookstore is closely related to the Asian culture, while most of them are also translated into Arabic and French, giving locals the opportunity to explore China and its different hues by just flipping pages.
“We also have many popular French titles and Arabic titles that might be bestsellers for online retailers or other bookstores to fully cater the local interests,” Qin said. “We always want to enrich the titles in our bookstore, so one can find titles about every broad category and we are always working on adding to our collection to make it more variable.”
In reality, Les Etoiles is a branch of a Chinese publishing brand named Lighthouse, which is based in Beijing. Lighthouse decided to open Les Etoiles in Rabat, Morocco to promote expression through cultural discourse.
For now, Qin is the only Chinese employee at the bookstore. His bachelor’s degree in Arabic studies and linguistics made him the perfect candidate for this position.
“I am a representative of the Beijing brand,” Qin said. “The company in Beijing focuses on translating Chinese into Arabic and French and they decided to set up our bookstore in Morocco because this place can use both languages very well and also the people here are very fond of the Chinese culture.”
Opening a place to mimic the Asian aesthetic, as well as to include such a wide range of Chinese titles and their translation to Arabic and French was certainly a challenge, as Qin recalls.
“We spent two years preparing—it was a really tough time for everyone because we are foreigners and we needed special authorization by state officials,” Qin said. “The Chinese style is not superficial, it is very deep inside the culture. The industry here doesn’t have the technology to make it; everything was pretty difficult.”
Not only the bookstore but also the bookstore’s name itself has a long story to reveal. The name: Les Etoiles; meaning stars in French was inspired by a Chinese belief that the Maghreb region represented the sunset. Through the sunset, the stars come out and they are visible in the sky.
“And it’s not just one star—it’s the stars, meaning that everyone coming here can be a star,” Qin said. “Just one star cannot be seen, but when they’re many and in clusters they can be seen. And every book sparks light.”
One of Qin’s favorite aspects of the job at Les Etoiles is observing how Rabat customers are always interested in learning more about the Chinese culture.
“I think that books are the most important means and people in Rabat are definitely willing to buy them,” Qin said. “As of right now, people are very fond of the books about the Asian culture and the different ways to explain and analyze what is currently going on in China’s politics.”
Still, the struggle of attracting readers is real for Les Etoiles as it is for most bookstores situated in Morocco; a nation that has drawn attention over its large percentage of illiterate citizens.
According to Morocco’s National Observatory for Human Development (ONDG), the average Moroccan adult gets only 4.7 years of proper education, while the percentage of illiterate citizens nationwide was 32 % of the population in 2015.
But Qin’s job at Les Etoiles has helped him realize the importance of books as a means to influence, educate and reach out to people. This is where the Les Etoiles team’s idea of event organizations came from.
“Our team of six brainstorms every week about the upcoming events; I am here to manage the store’s daily operations, look after our entries and what to include in the future,” Qin said.
Being Asian himself, Qin cherishes his presence at Les Etoiles and the whole idea of cultural merge behind it.
“I know the deeper meaning of the Chinese culture and I have studied the Arabic language in depth; I think there are a lot of similarities between the two countries, working here has made me realize it even more,” Qin said.
“I have to thank the Beijing company for providing me such an opportunity to work here, to be able to mix different cultures together and use our traditional way to promote our culture and allow the people in the city to learn more about it.”
Although Les Etoiles specializes in Chinese collections and topics that mainly focus on the Asian culture, it is still competing against the street markets that sell books at significantly lower prices. Street market bookselling is often preferred by Rabat citizens fuelling an ongoing battle with bookstore retailers.
A survey conducted by the Demographic, Economic, Legal and Statistical Studies Bureau indicated that the annual time devoted to reading by a Moroccan citizen does not exceed two minutes; but Les Etoiles customers are encouraged to take their time while deciding about their favorite title and also have a sit to quickly review it.
“It’s a different feeling; when people get into our bookstore, they are attracted by our different titles, they are willing to stand here and think about the different topics and find the title that mostly interests them,” Qin said. “When you are walking on the street, it’s a much different experience, it’s very noisy and crowded. You just have to make your decision in one second —and it might not be the right one.”
“Every book is warmly chosen by us from thousands and thousands of book collections to cater the needs of our customers,” he added.
Qin feels he is working for a purpose now, while he is painstakingly trying to perfect Les Etoiles and the bookstore’s aim to reach an even bigger audience and inspire cultural dialogue, through its unique concept in Rabat’s community.
“I did a lot of work for the bookstore in terms of organizing the collections and rearranging the space, the decorations, the paintings, the tables, all step by step, one by one,” Qin said.
“When people want to buy books and relax themselves and the first thing that comes in their mind is going to be Les Etoiles that is when our mission will be officially completed.”
“I can feel like ascending from the first floor to the 100th floor, so in the future we are going to have more things and provide more and better services to our different customers,” he added.
For now, there is one thing Les Etoiles team envisions: for one to be able to order a cup of tea or coffee and spend a very leisurely afternoon peering through hundreds of Asian titles; reading, discussing, and enjoying the place they have lovingly created for the people of Rabat.
They all acknowledge that there might be a long way to get there, but it is worth every single bit of the journey.