Written by Kenne Mwikya
Cruising for books, I find, is like cruising for sex, criminal sex, bad-for-society sex, dangerous sex in which anything goes. As I stated earlier, it involves the rupture of obliviousness. Walking along a street once, out of sync with your normal routine, you find something you never imagined existed.
You like this thing and you stop to acknowledge its existence, indulging your desire and possibly making a point to include it in your routine or at least letting it pleasurably disrupt your plans. If you’re really invested in this new found thing (oh god, all those cruising buddies reduced to “its” and “things”!), you decide to ensure that your experience of it lasts as long as possible.
Walking from my campus in Parklands to the Central Bus Station all the way to Hakati Lane often found me along the busy Tom Mboya St in the evenings where I made contact with stalls that sold books of a greater variety for a price lower than what I had been “used to” from the Hakati Lane bookstall.
Tom Mboya St has about ten stalls interspersed along it from as far as outside the Arkland Palace Hotel building (home of “Club Wallet) to the shops that line the end of it near the Fire Station. I prefer the bookstalls on the left side of the street and my favourite was just next to where matatus heading to Eastleigh pick up passengers.
It is here that I first came across books that I never imagined to exist in Kenyan public space. All along I assumed people interested in anything other than trash romance or Christian religious/inspirational books had to contend with buying books online and then suffering the months-long wait of shipping and possible pilferage or buying them in “e-format” (PDF, Kindle, that sort of thing) and losing the extolled “feel” of the printed word.
Of course, there were shops such Prestige Bookshop on Mama Ngina St and Bookpoint along the Moi Avenue that had volumes of robustly leftwing commentary, history and philosophy. But I still wondered about someone interested in Adrienne Rich’s commentary on poetry and politics; Audre Lorde’s ruminations on race, class, gender and sexuality; Simone de Beauvoir’s momentous Le Deuxiémme Sexe or Michel Foucault’s three-volume History of Sexuality but was on a very tight budget. I’m thinking of someone who voraciously reads Ian McEwan, John Grisham, Isabelle Allende or Danielle Steele and whose reading habits cannot be possibly satiated by referring to “formal” bookshops every time the craving starts kicking.
Here were all these books and more! I was transfixed. What ensued has been two years of sometimes impulsive buying. It has been two years of squatting on the stalls, minding my bag and the pedestrians whose feet are so close that their shoes rub against mine, and going through hundreds, even thousands of books covers, scrutinizing a book title, the author’s name, the cover.
Like cruising, I have come to have many books simply on account of the furtive glance and spark of recognition. Here, books are judged by their cover, for better or for worse. One approaches the bookstall already aware of what one wants, attracted to the stall by the mess of it all (the books are almost never arranged in any systematic order) and the possibility that there is something for anyone. It is here that I poured any money I had, that the end of a dour lecture-filled day somehow worth it. I’d spend an hour on a street that would normally take me fifteen minutes to walk from one end to another.
I made friends with the book sellers bargaining over a copy of a reader, making seven for five deals, getting books on credits and promising to bring friends the next time I make it to the book stalls. Of course, I never had as keen a group of friends who would wait for over twenty minutes as I overturned books, picking up a few, setting them aside and then picking from this bunch what I really wanted to buy. The books were cheap, going for 50 shillings on a routine day and for half that on a slow day or when the seller wanted to get rid of the current books to make room for a new batch. It was a pleasantly exasperating experience which brought to fruition a modest collection of three hundred books about everything from Poetry to Politics to Philosophy and in between.
Signs that things were about to change started showing early this year. There weren’t any new books showing up in the stalls. The first stall to go was at Odeon Cinema just outside the Coop-Bank Branch. I had bought from the stall a nice collection of Yiddish sayings, Luis Borges’ The Book of Sand and Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel Màrquez. I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it, the number of books on display had become less and less and were finally replaced by leather bound Bibles and an assortment of compendiums of exam papers allegedly used by the best Kenyan high schools to test their students. And that was that.
My favourite book stall at the Eastleigh matatus stage underwent a series of changes during the month of June where it dropped all books which weren’t romance novels, received a permit from the City Council and hiked the price of its books from between 100-200 shillings.
The queerness of the cruise lies in its furtiveness, the glances exchanged, the look of recognition and desire and possibility, the brief, exciting and dangerous encounter… If one is lucky, as I have been with my bookstalls, there is an assurance of the possibility of another encounter, under the same fleeting circumstances.
When I go back to school in a few weeks, I will invariably pass by the stalls along Tom Mboya St, the ones on Moi Avenue just across where buses pick up passengers, the Hakati Lane one, and the few ones strewn across the city and will be disappointed by the limiting choice of books on display and point to the commercialisation of this alternative knowledge hub as the cause of this sorry state. I won’t say hi to the booksellers and they won’t say hi to me but I’ll still remember the good times for the good times they were.