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Papercup: ten years of "pleasant harmony"

Beirut Insight

Beautiful books, coffee, a friendly atmosphere, words and much needed silence: ten years after opening its doors, nothing has changed at Papercup, except time and the people who have passed through, leaving the dust of invisible memories on the shelves.

Carla Henoud | OLJ
We go there with a light heart, as if meeting a long-lost friend; a friend whose perfume, words, cadence of speech and secrets we long to find–except Papercup is a place, such an intimate and special one that it could become almost like a friend. It is more than a bookstore; more than the hand-picked architecture, photography, fashion, art and design novels, children's books and magazines on its shelves; more than the in-house roasted coffee served with a slice of cake at the few small tables. Papercup is a pleasurable experience, one that was lacking in our country where reading has become more and more of a rarity, viewed almost as an obligatory chore to be completed at home. "It's a place that was missing and that I definitely missed," Rania Naufal, Papercup’s founder, told L'Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) in June 2009. She was not mistaken.

A few days later, Papercup opened its charming space to book lovers who greeted it with immediate and evident love at first sight, “as if I’ve created a place that many people were waiting for without knowing it,” Naufal said.

At the time, Mar Mikhael was still a forgotten, shy, aging neighborhood of melancholy and promise. Papercup’s opening offered a new concept: a place both simple and elegant. Visitors were happy to explore the 45-square-meter space with its shelves reaching to the ceiling and a climbing ladder to help access desired objects and add a bit of fun to the search.

Papercup, a beutiful space designed by FaR Architects. Photo Cyrille Karam

"More and more people only come to take pictures,” Naufal says nine years later. That same morning, two young women–most probably savvy tourists–passed by to enjoy a quick coffee break before leaving. The reputation of this brainy and beautiful bookshop has travelled beyond our borders. In 2014, the Huffington Post ranked it as one of the Top 10 Art and Design Bookstores Around the World, while GGU (Adobe's magazine) placed it alongside the best design bookstores on a list that stretches from Shanghai to New York. Papercup has gained this recognition–at a time when Lebanon is suffering from intellectual laziness nonetheless–because of the quality books on its shelves, its welcoming space, the helpful advice offered by the staff and, most importantly, its special ambiance, a quality catalyzed by Naufal’s team that cannot quite be explained.

"I often wake up in the morning aware of how lucky I am to be able to do something I love,” Naufal says, who has experienced a lot of happiness in the past ten years. "I learned all the facets of this job, and it's a fascinating one."

But there have been some regrets along the way, like "having missed a few opportunities; perhaps also the fact of not having had enough confidence in myself at the beginning and having been a little scattered,” she adds, "I am someone very much ‘into silence’. I do not scream out loud what I do.” There has been little reason for her to do so. The success of her bookstore in a country where people read very little speaks for itself.

Naufal’s model can be summed up in just three words: “a pleasant harmony”. The staff offers advice on books and magazines and organizes events for children and small, informal roundtables. It also shares its musical, literary and other preferences through its newsletter/magazine, “The Sounder”, compiled by journalist Ramsay Short. Finally, every summer a special guest curates a selection of books. Beginning on June 21, the guest was Elizabeth McNeal, author of “The Doll Factory”.

Photo Cyrille Karam

"A city without a bookstore is a dead city. Personally, I think that Beirut would not be the same without Papercup,” says architect Celine Haddad. “I would even add that Papercup belongs to the best of the multifaceted Beirut, simply because it's one of the only specialized bookstores in the region that offers such a rich variety of art books and magazines."

“I started working there three months ago, although I have been a client since 2010,” Haddad continues. “The best memory I have of the place would be the feeling of calm that passes through me every time I walk into the bookstore. Whether it's to buy a book, window shop or just sip coffee, this comforting feeling overwhelmed me and still does until today."

The color of coffee

How good would a moment of reading be without good coffee? Or how good would a day be, for that matter? Coffee has always been an important part of Naufal’s life, and it is integrated into the concept of Papercup as well. The name evokes an actual paper cup, used in the American coffee tradition to take your morning cup of joe with you on your way to work. "I refuse to drink capsule coffee," Naufal declares loud and clear.

In order to recapture the taste of a homemade, roasted coffee she savored a few years ago in a hole-in-the-wall cafe in Oregon, Naufal has enrolled in specialized coffee workshops to expand her knowledge and add the bittersweet scent and taste to her bookstore. For Papercup’s 10th anniversary, she also decided to open a coffee shop next to the bookstore (under the same label). Starting next fall, the new space will offer coffees and salads that can be enjoyed indoors or on the terrace.

(This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 20th of June)

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