AiW Guest Mehul Gohil
A friend said “I know Mehul bought a bunch of Delany and so on. On the NBO streets.”
Another friend thought which streets? Turned to me and asked “Pray tell, Mehul, where did you chance upon this treasure?”
It’s not so hard. Find a weekday. Pick a time – around 5:30pm when rush hour starts to peak. Start from just outside Wakulima Market (the other side of it, the non-Haile side, the side where it seems you will end up on the railtracks). You might have to cross a stinky swamp just as you exit Wakulima (on the other side) to get there (especially in this rainy season). Regulars like me know which stones and wooden planks to step on when crossing the swamp waters. I suggest you wear gumboots on your first excursion. Here you will find about half a dozen book hawkers strewn across a length of about one hundred meters. It’s the cheapest place. They sell the books for 30 KSh each (about 35 cents in USD). My latest find here was a juicy 600+ page Herman Melville collection of ‘tales, poems & other writings’. You will find lotsa sci-fi; largely because most sci-fi (all?) novels have the cheap paperback look. If you find 10-20 books you like, you could hustle a deal for all of them for a mere 200 KSh (just over 2 dollars USD).
Next stop is inside Wakulima Market itself. The price goes up slightly – 30 to 100 KSh. Usually, they have a boring collection here. Needless to say, I have never found anything worth it. But I still do check the place, simply as part of the ritual of my book-hunting addiction.
Then you come out of Wakulima, now on the Haile-side, and you can fish around. There are a bunch of random book hawkers in the vicinity at this time of day. Sometimes you might get lucky with something good, like To Our Scattered Bodies Go.
The real goldmines are on Tom Mboya Street, but you may want to take a detour to the Bridge Over Railways. That’s the one just past Kenya Poly towards the tracks. Just at the foot of the bridge you will find a bunch of book-kiosks. Mostly here it’s school books, but if you talk to the book hawker fellows nicely, they will take you into the backdoor areas of the kiosks where their ‘godowns’ are. I’ve found some Delany here. You might meet an old fellow, who looks like he’s in his sixties now, I don’t know his name, I just know how he looks. A head full of grey hair, no balding, square face with a grey moustache. He should probably be considered a legend in Kenyan literature, because I think he may have been the first book hawker in Nairobi. He has been in operation at this same spot since the early 1990’s. My dad used to take me to this place on Saturday afternoons when I was a kiddo and he would buy me a bunch of DC comics and hardcover illustrated science books and so on. I bought my first DeLillo’s from here in the mid 1990’s (End Zone, White Noise and Ratner’s Star…apparently I thought they were sci-fi novels, and that didn’t change on reading them). It is these invisible Kenyans that make life tick. Go to some litfest-hayfest and you find a bunch of yuppie-like literati who have got to be good looking. Back at the Bridge Over Railways the guys are so hard to see but that’s where the books come together.
You might want to take some further detours along Haile and Moi Avenue. At the ‘Agip’ petrol station, adjacent the Central Bank. The collection is mostly girly pulp fiction. Nora Roberts and such hairstyles. But even here sometimes I get wonderful stuff; last year I managed to pick up a bunch of Philip K. Dick’s.
Outside the Tusky’s (the one next to Bomb Blast) you will find one of the more popular book hawker spots. But this one is no longer as good as it once was. There appear to be some turf wars going on between the book hawkers. For a couple of years (2010-2012) the book hawkers at this spot were different guys and their collection was generally kick-ass. I bought over a hundred books just in those couple of years from this spot. But now the news guys seem to have liased with City Council askaris and had the good fellows kicked out. The bad guys have taken over and their collection is crap. So is their customer service. Plus they have hiked the prices to over 200/=. Stuff they have is mostly these big hardcover things about cookers, sewing, modelling, Ferrari cars, organic chemistry, Princess Diana and so on. Boring things. They have killed it for this particular spot. When it was good, the place was jam packed with book enthusiasts and we used to block off this section of the pavement completely.
Further down, are some other book hawkers. Again nothing much that interests me. Just after Kenya Cinema there is this gulley and this spot also used to be good. There was another old fellow who had some very interesting books. Then his sons came in and took over and messed it all up. The old guy is no longer there and the sons now sell DVDs instead of books.
You can then cross over to the other side of Moi Avenue and find three other book hawking spots. These ones are good. Lots of Philip K Dick here if you want. Philip K Ubik is alive and roaming in downtown Nairobi and, as long as he is read and used as directed, is absolutely safe.
Now onto Tom Mboya. Several spots here and you can definitely try the stalls inside the buildings. But the sci-fi motherload is at the spot just after the Tusky’s (the one diagonally opposite National Archives). The dude who runs this spot has got everything you would want when it comes to sci-fi. I found six Delany novels here. Sometimes you have to be patient (this is a general rule), come in day after day, because these fellows like to sell out one lot before they replenish. But this guy always has something worth buying. Last week I picked up a book because it had a nice cover: metallic look with the word “LIGHT” creeping through. By M. John Harrison. I’d never heard of him. It was a wonderful wonderful read.
The other fine spot is next to the other Tusky’s (the one at the short road that connects Tom Mboya with Moi Avenue). Here, there is an excellent selection of a more literary sort of fiction. I have bought Beckett, Pynchon, DFW, Doris Lessing, and even Soyinka’s The Interpreters from here (I have NEVER seen The Interpreters in any formal Kenyan bookshop. And it’s one hell of a novel). It’s like these two bookhawkers know what their clients want and therefore they seem to specialize. But I suspect they may not even be conscious of it. Instead, some strange kind of natural selection goes on.
If you have a Kindle, some of the electronic shops on Tom Mboya can hook you up with cheap and pirate .mobi format books. You give them a list of 50-100 books, pay them like 1000/= and they will hunt them down. You collect after a few days.
There are other spots I have not mentioned, downtown Nairobi is a rich place for books. There are those fellows around Alliance Française, on Kenyatta Avenue, on Ronald Ngala and so on. Over Easter, I was playing in the National Chess Championships at Kenyatta University and got to pass by Githurai – 12 kilometres East of the city centre – every morning for four days. Just at the roundabout next to the highway, I discovered a bunch of book hawkers there too – mostly selling pulp fiction. And who knows what is happening in Mombasa? Kisumu? Nakuru? Whatever you do, don’t think the only Women of the Aeroplanes are those you see within the established literary circles. People in Kenya are reading.
Mehul Gohil is a writer born and living in Nairobi, Kenya. His fiction has previously been published in Kwani? and online at Short Story Day-Africa. He is included in the Africa39 list which showcases the most promising 39 African writers under the age of 39. He is currently putting together a short story collection.
This piece is the first in a 3 part series. In part 2 Mehul will write about some of the interesting people he has met on the Nairobi streets whilst buying books. The final part will explore how this book hunting phenomenon fits with his loner persona by showing how it has made him become an explorer of the intricate skeleton of downtown, an explorer who sets out to discover the best spots for a loner to read a book