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If you love bookshops, buy from them

When I was a young boy, I would regularly gather my pocket money and take a bus into Nairobi’s central district to buy books.

My perambulations would begin at the famous second-hand shop, Toddlers Bazaar, just off Koinange Street. This ever-busy shop was a prime place to find unusual, affordable novels. From there I would walk to Bookpoint, on Moi Avenue; double back to the small bookstore under the New Stanley Hotel; then on to Book Corner on Mama Ngina street. I would always end up in Prestige Bookshop, right next to what was then the 20th Century cinema.

Here’s the thing: of that group, only Prestige survives today. Most of Nairobi’s treasured, venerable bookshops are gone, replaced mostly by the purveyors of paraphernalia for the modern life: mobile phones, airtime, gadgetry and the like.

Prestige, which has been in existence for as long as I can remember, has always been a favourite. It is a proper bookshop, selling little else other than a wide selection of books, crowded into a small space and stacked up to the ceiling. It always provided a little bookmark with every book purchased there. It still does. Over the years, I gathered a huge collection of them.

It is one of the few places in Nairobi where you can find books beyond the norm; not just the pulpy bestsellers, but proper books, esoteric books, classic books.

Across town, deep in the Yaya Centre mall, sits another proper bookshop. Bookstop has also been going for decades now, selling an enormous range of tomes. This shop prides itself on going far beyond the books on the bestseller charts; this is where you are likely to find books in your area of expertise, books you never imagined existed, books that are a serendipitous delight. Bookstop has a fiercely loyal clientele, with buyers from beyond these borders regularly making their pilgrimage to stock up their bookshelves.

Hats off to these two shops, their owners, managers and assistants. They have a bigger deal going on. If they were interested in smaller deals, they would have followed the money and changed their lines of business. But there is a purpose at play here: a purpose centred on love of the world of books.

It’s a special world, that: a world in which thoughts and ideas and arguments and imaginations are put to paper; and that paper is then packaged and marketed and arranged for sharing. Bookshops and libraries are the cathedrals of that world; musty places run by bohemian types, full of mystery and discovery.

Is it enough, though, to just doff our hats at bookshops for doing a good job? No, we must support them. If you love books, you must buy them. If you love bookshops, you must go to them, encourage them, keep them going. It’s not enough to praise them or wish them well from afar. If you are a committed bibliophile, buy books. Books will survive if today’s customers love them; not as relics of a bygone era.

Don’t buy books just for the romance of it; that isn’t sustainable. Do it because in the world of reading, we need as many options as possible. It’s great that we have Amazon and we have e-books, make no mistake; they are useful and convenient things. But if we allow them to dominate the book trade all over the world while amassing ever more gargantuan profits, we shall all be the poorer.

Books will survive because they have intrinsic benefits over competing options. Bookshops will also survive for as long as customers regard them as useful and enjoyable experiences. The people at Bookstop and Prestige know this. They continue to survive and thrive not just because they love their trade; they also work hard to keep the right stocks; they offer knowledge and advice; and they build long-standing relationships with customers.

The wider lesson is this: your wallet is a set of votes, and votes have power. Use your votes judiciously in this world, not just in selecting leaders to represent you, but in selecting products and services that mean something special to you. We should not just follow herds and be swayed by our peers when spending hard-earned dollars and shillings. We should also use our money to make a point. If you appreciate quality or passion or dedication or idiosyncrasy – reward it. That way those things may be around for generations to come.

(Sunday Nation, 23 December 2018)

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