From quarry to elite book seller

Mwangi Mburu (left) and  Chan Bahal of Bookstop. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG
Mwangi Mburu (left) and Chan Bahal of Bookstop. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

In 1994, Mwangi Mburu was cooling his heels in the village waiting for a prayer. He had been laid off from a quarry. After months, a call came in from a friend in Nairobi: “Do you want to work in a bookshop?” He packed a bag and came back to Nairobi aged 24 years old taking up a job at BookStop in Yaya Centre.

He’s been on his feet for 24 years now, working with and amongst books and interacting with readers.

BookStop turns 30 years old in a few months and the proprietor, Chan Bahal, says e-books and technology have done little to shake the foundation of hardcopies. The army of the hardcopy surges on.

JACKSON BIKO met Mwangi in a small room in the bookshop to talk about his experiences on the floor of one of Nairobi’s notable bookshops.


What’s the important thing you’ve learnt working here with books and people who read?

(Pause) That you don’t have to be too educated to learn things. I never got an opportunity to proceed with education after secondary school because of financial challenges. But through interacting with people who come here, I have learnt a lot by talking to them and looking at how they live their lives.

Do you have time to read?

It’s not easy to find time to read. We used to work seven days a week for a long time but now I get time off for a few days but then I have to travel to see my family. I managed to purchase a small piece of land and built a house outside Nairobi. But I read a lot of book reviews online. We also get many catalogues from publishers which you have to read.

Are you able to tell the book that will do well?

Yes. Books that do well are those that show what’s happening in the country or the world. I interact with customers who travel a lot. For instance, there was a time books on Osama bin Laden and terrorism was selling well, now books about Isis are in stock. There was a time for Al Shabaab books and now it’s Donald Trump…people write about what is going on or what will happen.

Do you think eBooks will kill the bookshop?

Never. You know when Kindles came into the market, people got worried. Nothing much has changed in Kenya. Plus, the old folks, let me call them old folks, those old readers, not the new generation, I think they are more into hardcopies.

Which is the one book you’ve seen, all these years you’ve been working here, that has continually done well?

They are many. ‘‘The God of Small Things,’’ by Arundhati Roy has been around for 20 years and still sells. ‘‘The Da Vinci Code’’ by Dan Brown that came when Pope John Paul was dying and up to date, people are still reading it. Under motivation books, there is ‘‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’’ by Dale Carnegie. There’s ‘‘The Prince’’ by Niccolò Machiavelli that people still buy to date and ‘‘The Art of War’’ by Sun Tzu. These are some of the books we always have to stock.

How many children do you have?

I have three kids. I have brought them up while here. My first is turning 23, she has a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Kenyatta University, she also did accounting at Strathmore University and now she works with a marketing firm. My son is in Mombasa Technical University, second year now and my third born is in Form two.

It must take a lot of organisation to raise three children.

You know when you live with people who are informed you also start behaving like them. I have seen what informed people can do. My wish has always been to educate my kids to be like those people.

Do they love reading?

I know the importance of making them love books. Whenever they ask for a book, I get it for them. I sacrifice to make sure that they get what they want.

Was there a time in your 24 years that you were tempted to work elsewhere?

No, every day is a new day. It’s never occurred to me how long I have worked here until the other day that I was thinking that I came here as a small boy. But I just pray one day when I will be leaving this place, I never get employed again. I want to farm and keep animals.

Is it true that women read more than men?

I would say 80 per cent are local, black people, then maybe 10 per cent are white and then five per cent Asians. But yes, it’s true that women read more than men, especially the young adult ladies. They mostly read fiction and motivational/self-help books. But men, read the serious stuff, non-fiction and business books.

What’s going to be your proudest moment working here for all those years?

I have achieved what a man should achieve; raising a family, taking my children to school. I have also interacted with many people and writers. People like Jonathan Scott who wrote ‘‘Safari Guide to East African Birds.’’ I’ve met great photographers. I have met Thabo Mbeki. Whenever he’s in the country, he has to come buy a book.

Even politicians, the serious ones read. I met Uhuru Kenyatta before he became president, he would come here on Sundays with his kids. Now the First Lady is one of our best customers. She always buys many copies of ‘‘The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom’’ by Don Miguel Ruiz.

I have served Fred Matiang’i {Interior secretary}, former attorney-general Githu Muigai who always comes to buy books. These people have taught me that you should believe in yourself, that you can make it in life.


Then Biko had a quick chat with Chan:

What book would you recommend to a new father?

Gina Ford’s book, ‘‘The New Contented Little Baby Book.’’ It’s a best seller here.

Is it true that Kenyan men don’t read?

They read. I’d say the ratio is 50-50. Men are very aggressive readers. They digest everything. But when the gender fight is on, you know a lot more women are writing books, obviously men won’t touch them. Yet women will want to read things that men write.

What’s your personal reading culture like?

Well, I used to read but I’ve given up. I work 24 hours, man. I’m currently reading, ‘‘The President’s Keeper’’ by Jacques Pauw. It’s amazing. I’d want to take two days off and just sit down and read that, but I can’t.