Among the sunglasses and wallets sold on Nairobi’s streets, a new product draws attention: used books. The thriving industry is facilitated by a combination of Western donations and local entrepreneurship.
In 2008, Kenyan legislators made secondary public schooling free, and many parents are now using spare funds to buy novels. “I just like reading books,” Sammy, whose daughter is at a government school, tells Think Africa Press. Sammy buys a novel every week – always from the street.
Buying brand new books in Nairobi can cost thousands of shillings (around $20) or more, so savvy vendors started selling second-hand books from streets and market stalls.
In the city centre, vendors work in the open, displaying books on tables, wooden pallets, or mats on the ground. Kimuhu opened his stand in 1999. Unemployed at the time and with four children, Kimuhu sold their old schoolbooks and bought more with the profits. After education became free, Kimuhu says his schoolbook sales all but disappeared, but demand for novels increased.
On his main table, Kimuhu displays paperbacks by John Grisham and Nora Roberts (Kimuhu prefers Stephen King). A smaller area has literary novels by the likes of Truman Capote and Cormac McCarthy. With many Nairobians speaking English as a second language, American and British books have a clear audience.
Kimuhu works over 10 hours every day, paying around 100 KES ($1) a week for his stall. Sales pick up particularly in wet weather. “When it’s too sunny, people sleep,” he says. “When you enjoy your tea in the rain, you read a book.”
Charles Thuku sells books on Tom Mboya Street, known for its hawkers of cheap goods. He sells about 300 used books a day for 50 KES ($0.60) apiece, earning himself around $180 a day.
Thuku gets his books from importers like Abraham Gitundu, who brings in shipments from the UK. He says some of his suppliers get books from charity shops, and in many ways the used-book industry copies the second-hand clothing industry but on a smaller scale; Nairobi’s used clothes businesses employ around 25,000 traders, with imported clothing accounting for 50% of the local textile market.
When a container of books arrives, Gitundu texts about 30 retailers who get first choice on “the top cream” of the shipment in exchange for helping to sort it.
Secondhand Global Imports Ltd. also saw the emerging trend and started importing American books, according to operations manager Carol Kariuki. Books now make 20% of her business, after clothing and shoes, and every year she imports four containers each carrying about 11,000 books. “The culture of reading in Kenya is developing,” she says.
Indeed, Nairobi’s new readers are highly dedicated. “In a week, I buy four times,” says Farida, a culinary student who stops on her way home to buy a romance novel. Joseph Warutere, a salesman, buys three books each week from street vendors. “I have been reading from August, because that’s when I got employment,” he says.
As she examines Thuku’s selection, Floice, a university student, comments “In movies, the story is given to you. With books you create the vision in your mind”. Another customer, Warutere, suggests “Reading is the only thing which can make your mind grow.”
But as well as to individuals, imported books are also sold to organisations such as retailers, schools and libraries in bales containing 100 books, usually costing between 1500-5000 KES (approximately $15-60). This is good value-for-money, but one can never be sure of the contents. “You hope what’s inside is good,” says Charles Ndung’u Kimuhu, who sells books in the open-air Toi Market. “Sometimes you find a gem”.
While vendors' licenses may be hard to get, they improve the ease of daily transacting. Thuku says he was harassed by authorities before he got a license, with water sometimes being poured on his books. “Now, I am free,” he tell Think Africa Press. Thuku knows seventeen other licensed vendors, and hopes to organise them into a union.
George, however, is not one of these. He is an unlicensed newcomer who sells books near Kenyatta Avenue during the day and studies accounting at night. His collection consists of just a few dozen novels and children’s books on flattened cardboard boxes, but he fills a niche selling literary works by authors such as Toni Morrison, Gustav Flaubert, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. “I’m a very good reader of novels,” he says, “that’s my passion”.
George writes every sale he makes in a notebook, alongside the bribes he pays. “I paid her 100 KES this morning,” he says, motioning to a nearby police officer. George has been arrested twice, but bribed his way out: 2000 KES ($20) for the books and 1000 KES ($10) for himself. He had to borrow the money from friends and is still repaying the debt.
Legal or not, selling novels on the street at least covers simple living expenses for vendors. But it might not be too long before Nairobi’s new readers give up second-hand books in favour of e-books. NGOs have begun donating e-readers to Kenyan schools, and at Thuku’s stand on Tom Mboya, Floice reads online book reviews on her smartphone before deciding on her purchase. But for the moment, e-readers remain out of the grasp of many; “if I could afford a Kindle,” says Floice, “I would buy one”. And until then, it seems vendors like Kimuhu, Thuku and George will continue to enjoy the business of selling very affordable second-hand books to Nairobi’s enthusiastic readers.
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