Like all things human, reading – or we could become bookish and call it literacy – has its own economics. That is why the last time you read the ‘Books of the Month’ column, I promised to ‘walk the streets’ next and share with you what the less endowed Kenyans buy ‘on the streets’ for their reading.
Well, yes, I did walk the streets of downtown Nairobi and realised that book reading for the majority of Nairobians, who cannot manage to get by on their ever declining income, is a matter of who wins: Stomach or mind?
Well, before I tell you about my findings, let me say something in response to a reader who seemed angry after the last column in which I reported my findings from the bookshops.
The reader was agitated that I didn’t provide evidence of my ‘research.’ The reader wanted photos, statistics and graphs, I guess. I could easily have provided all that, except that my editor won’t allow me such luxuries like a whole page just to ‘present my research findings’ in this column!
So, what do ‘street people’ say about what books they sell and what books are bought by the passersby?
No surprises here, really. The books that I reported as flying off the shelves last time are actually jumping off the pavements as well. But why would you really buy a book when you don’t have enough coins to pay for your bus fare to Kawangware, Korogocho, Mathare, Kibra, Dandora or Buru Buru?
It isn’t that people from these places can’t or won’t read. It is just that their economy doesn’t allow them the luxury of buying books as regularly as some of the people who describe themselves in their CVs as book lovers.
Poverty and lack of spare money is why most people buy books on the streets. These individuals buy these books because they are generally 50 per cent cheaper than in the bookshop.
Patrick Mungai, who sells books next to Tuskys Supermarket on Muindi Mbingu Street, has a flat rate of Sh100 for all the books he sells. He sells mainly children’s books, adult pop fiction and classics of European and American literature.
Mungai says that children’s books sell most, especially whenever schools are closed.
“You see, I have three school-going children at home when schools close. The only way to keep them from mischief is to let them watch the TV or listen to the radio. But I buy these books for them as the alternative from the TV or radio,” Aisha Bakari, a parent who was browsing Mungai’s books tells me.
Meanwhile, people stop by to flip the pages of the hundreds of paperbacks on the pavement. Some pick and pay. Others try to negotiate with Mungai for a discount.
A young man offers Sh400 for five copies of different ‘thrillers.’ He has a Sh500 but argues that his fare back home is Sh100. I leave as the seller and buyer continue to haggle.
Down the road on Kimathi Street is Eric Mwangi whose collection is meant to serve an upscale client; after all this is Kimathi Street. He has fairly new books conversing a range of subjects. There are books on politics, economics, philosophy, classical literature, pop literature, etc.
I bought Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale’s Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa. It is from Mwangi that I bought Wangari Maathai’s last book, two years ago.
Mwangi tells me that he sells a lot of inspirational and motivational books. “Women between the ages of 25 and 50 buy a lot of inspirational books. They seem to like books that have been ‘recommended’ by other women. Books such as Woman of Confidence by Joyce Meyer.
“Men, on the other hand, want motivational books. They want books about how to make money; how to succeed; how to get rich. That is why The Monk who Sold his Ferrari by Robin Sharma still sells a lot.” I am left wondering about the distinction between inspirational and motivational, in the manner that Mwangi just made.
Does it mean that women are less aspiring? Maybe yes, maybe not. Maybe women just know how to manage their lives a little better than men.
Still, just like my forays into the bookshops revealed last month, a lot of the inspirational and motivational books that I wrote about are selling just as well on the streets. Books by authors such as Robin Sharma, Joyce Meyer, Dale Carnegie, Joel Osteen etc sell a lot, according to the street book dealers I talked to.
Odero, on Kenyatta Avenue will sell you old copies of National Geographic, Readers’ Digest and a range of Christian books, cook books, etc. I am surprised that people still buy National Geographic and Readers’ Digest. “There are people who don’t have TV to watch National Geographic, and there are those who are nostalgic about Readers’ Digest,” says Odero.
A colleague at the university could be one of those nostalgic people. She speaks highly of Readers’ Digest, to which she stopped subscription in 2006, after five years of reading it.
What about young people? What do young girls and boys buy from the streets to read? Many young people today will not necessarily buy books to read just for leisure. However, there are groups of retro teenagers who seem to have rediscovered the ‘old’ thrillers by names such as Danielle Steele, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy etc. Others have created a significant fan base for the TV/book series Game of Thrones.
But school/college going youth buy textbooks. At different pavement bookstores on Moi Avenue, Kenyatta Avenue, Kipande Road and River Road, I saw tens of young men and women buy books on a wide range of subjects.
Books on business, IT, law, sociology and research seem to sell a lot. When I asked the booksellers how they met the seeming big demand for these books, many were unwilling to divulge their sources of the books.
But there was no doubt that some of the books were too new to be second hand. Either they are pilfered from somewhere; or someone had bought a copy that they didn’t want to use; or some bookstores had offloaded them during stock clearance, or some student simply asked their parents for books, which the parents duly pay for, but which their children sell to these book vendors.
This is why there is a lot of school setbooks such as The Whalerider, Betrayal in the City and The River and the Source on the pavement bookstores.
The pavement book vendors can’t strictly be said to serve as secondhand bookstores. They serve the purpose of secondhand bookstores and are some form of alternative library.
In a country where public libraries are countable, books are expensive and secondhand bookstores non-existent, these pavement book vendors make it possible for poor Kenyans to read for school, self-improvement and leisure.
The fact that I could buy a second hand book, the Unhappy Valley, at Sh700 when a new one in the bookstore retails above Sh2,000 illustrates best the economics of reading among Kenyans.
The last word: From your bookshelf or the box in which you store your books, pick the books you really don’t need and offer them to the public library nearest you, your local school or old people’s home or offer them, at a heavy discount to the street book vendors. You might just change the life of a book-hungry Kenyan. Next time I will bring you conversations with ‘reading people’ on the street.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org