The man behind the literary heart of Little Arabia

Jarir Saadoun has had to adapt to bookselling in the era of COVID-19. He gives insight into running a small business, raising his 2-year-old son, and building connections with the Arab American community through reading — all during the pandemic.

Jarir Saadoun paints a picture of the community around his bookstore before, and adjustments he’s made after the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you asked Jarir Saadoun in the 5th grade what he envisioned for his future, he would have told you two things: to be a professional rollerblader, and to make a million dollars at his dad’s bookstore. Now, the bookstore is named after him, and he’s the manager.

Jarir Saadoun sits in the reading area of Jarir Bookstore in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Jarir Saadoun)

Jarir Bookstore is located on Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, Calif. The street is known for its multicultural offerings, hosting an array of businesses specializing in food and traditions from all over Asia. Jarir Bookstore serves Little Arabia as a hub of Arabic-language literature. Like most independently-owned businesses, due to COVID-19, he’s had to adapt how he serves his community.

Throughout Saadoun’s childhood, his father Mohamad rented a warehouse to store Arabic books he brought from his travels to sell in the U.S. Before that, he sold them out of the garage of their old home in South Orange County. Some of Saadoun’s earliest memories were from that warehouse — him and his brother would play among the books.

I would go there on and off as a child, my dad would drag us there. We didn’t want to go, we wanted to be outside, but he was trying to show us some responsibility,” Saadoun said.

Mohamad began the business in 1992. From then, he amassed a local customer base of book-lovers and academics in Arabic language and literature. In 2003, they found the storefront location while driving down Brookhurst Street — a furniture store going out of business. He encouraged 16-year-old Saadoun to start and operate the storefront, all by himself.

“I was all worried about that. He said, ‘No, we’re gonna try it, it doesn’t hurt to try.’ I think he’s more of a risk taker than me. He said, ‘You’re going to run it — you’re going to go open it, you’re going to go get the licenses and everything from the city, and open a bank account.’ All the things you have to do to structure a business basically,” Saadoun said.

Jarir Bookstore is located in a shopping center on Brookhurst Street and Katella Avenue in the heart of Little Arabia. (Photo courtesy of Jarir Saadoun)

The bookstore has been a place of solace for the average reader in Little Arabia. Saadoun is always looking to give recommendations to his visitors. First, he’ll ask which language you’re looking to read in — Arabic or English. He has a selection of each languages’ literature, with 15,000 titles total, and multiple copies of each. They’re available in a wide variety of genres. Whether it’s Stephen King or Islamic jurisprudence, visitors can find a book that satisfies them.

Like most businesses, the number of Saadoun’s walk-in customers has decreased since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Still, he’s making an effort to engage his customers in their bookish musings, even if it’s just over the phone.

I spent like 30 minutes today with a gentleman that was asking me about all kinds of books. He kept adding them to his list, and then he’s like, ‘I’m going to build a library. I’m going to call you, we’re going to discuss for two hours every book, and we’re going to choose them individually,’” Saadoun said. “It’s nice to speak with people that have that knowledge.”

A glimpse of the books offered in Jarir Bookstore. Among those pictured here are the Christian Bible in Arabic, The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo, and Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders by Denise Spellberg. (Photo courtesy of Jarir Saadoun)

Before the pandemic, Jarir Bookstore was also a space for community events for children. These events included pizza parties, Eid gift-giving, and Arabic-language storytimes every other Saturday.

The bookstore has maintained sales throughout the pandemic by selling books online. While many major brick-and-mortar booksellers, like Barnes & Noble, have struggled in the shadow of Amazon, Saadoun says it’s been easier for him to keep up as a small business. Their website, established in 1993, was established one year before Amazon was founded.

Typically, their busiest times of year are Ramadan and Eid, the winter holiday season, and back-to-school season. With the fall semester coming up, however, there’s been only greater uncertainty around COVID-era approaches to education. Saadoun says he hasn’t seen as high a volume of orders from schools and universities like he usually gets around this time of year.

Despite changes the pandemic has brought, Saadoun sees a silver lining. He’s spent more time at home with his two-year-old son named Laith, whom he’s teaching literacy in both Arabic and English. Saadoun says time passes differently when you’re parenting a toddler during quarantine. 

Saadoun and his son Laith at the beach recently.
(Photo courtesy of Jarir Saadoun)

“At that age … It’s like a jump,” he said. “It’s a big milestone when they get to a few months. It’s totally different. It’s not like a 30 or 31 year old, they’re the same pretty much.”

The name “Laith” in Arabic means a young, healthy lion. It also has meaning in Gaelic, which made everybody in his family happy, since Saadoun is half Lebanese and half Scots-Irish. 

Among the books offered at Jarir Bookstore, Al-Bahr Al-Madid, or the Immense Ocean, is a thirteenth century commentary on the Quran. (Photo courtesy of Jarir Saadoun)

Jarir Bookstore is a pillar of Arabic education and literacy for both Arab-Americans and non-Arabs who are interested in learning the language. Saadoun hopes people can continue to return to and preserve cultural enclaves like Little Arabia, regardless of their own backgrounds. 

It changes your view. We have a lot of [these enclaves] here in Orange County. I think that people should treasure those things.

Jarir Saadoun

By Noor Bouzidi

Noor Bouzidi got her start in radio by interning at KCRW in Santa Monica. There, she fell in love with audio storytelling. She is an Algerian American from Redlands, California and speaks four languages: English, Arabic, Spanish, and French. Since the age of 18, she has worked in fashion retail and has amassed an impressive collection of statement earrings. She recently graduated from UCLA with a degree in Linguistics and Anthropology and is now interning with KALW in San Francisco.