What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul — Neil Gaiman, American Gods.
The temples of modern virtual civilisations — mobile phones, airtime, gadgetry and the like — are displacing some of the most treasured bookshops in Nairobi and other towns. A bookshop is a repository of the finest inheritance of any generation. A town or a community suffers irreparable lose if bookshops are replaced with something else, however beneficent.
Bookpoint is gone. The bookshop under the Stanley Hotel is gone. So are the bookshops along Koinange Street and Moi Avenue. The once iconic Mt Kenya Bookshop in Kakamega disappeared long ago. I trace my knowledge of the world of books to this bookshop.
The replacement of bookshops with paraphernalia of modern civilisation does not bode well for the nation’s future. Nairobi was once awash with bookshops that sold books of high cultural value in terms of knowledge, thought and refinement in writing. One could find fiction and nonfiction works.
All those books have gone. We cannot talk of Kenya joining and managing the complexities of a knowledge economy when we don’t buy and read books of outstanding intellectual, professional and technical rigour. It is ironical that while bookshops are dying in Kenya, some countries prize them so much to the point of venerating them.
I had the privilege — in my six-week stint in India — to walk into the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay in 2009. I had been advised to try the institute’s bookshop from where I was told I would find Jawaharlal Nehru’s An Autobiography. I not only found the book, but also two great classics, The Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of fables and Friedrich Froebel’s The Education of Man, a classic on education theory.
I found it odd that an institute founded on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) had books on the humanities and social sciences. In Kenya we look down upon the arts and humanities. I walked into at least three very good bookshops all of which, with the exception of the India Institute of Technology, had a reading area. Customers are allowed to sit and page through a book before buying it — try reading a book in our remaining bookshops!
I also saw many bookshops in Mumbai’s Central Business District. India has so many open-air bookshops; they sell all manner of books — same titles but of different quality in terms of publication or printing.
The point is that there is a reason to bemoan the demise of bookshops in Kenya. While mobile phones, airtime, gadgetry, supermarkets and restaurants have their place in the economy, they should not displace bookshops — the temple of knowledge and skills. We are in danger of embracing a philistine culture if we have not embraced it already.
In an article titled, Ten Bookstores in India That You Must Check Out, Suzanne Jennings on May, 27 2015, observes that some cities in the West are converting churches and factories into bookshops!
A reading culture is critical for the well-being of a community and by extension the society. The society can access knowledge that is important in understanding their situations and dealing with them. Reading helps readers to develop intellectual skills that are critical to analysing problems and solving them.
It also widens their mental horizons and empathy in ways that make them a little more open to new ideas, perspectives and orientations. Reading makes them more empathetic to the feelings of other people, hence, laying the bridges or foundations for negotiation and understanding between and among people who would otherwise be different by dint of their education, social, cultural and gender status or orientation.
The displacement of bookshops by the gadgetry of modern life means that reading for fun, for knowledge and for heuristic purposes, is dying. And with it a whole heritage is being lost. We have every reason to bemoan this.