Book hunting in downtown Nairobi

book sellers


A friend said “I know Mehul bought a bunch of Delany and so on. On the NBO streets.”

“Which streets?” another friend asked, “Pray tell, Mehul, where did you chance upon this treasure?”

I said:

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 here, 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/= each. 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/=.

Next stop is inside Wakulima Market itself. The price goes up slightly. 30/= to 100/=. 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 out of 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 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/hawkers (or whatever they are). Mostly 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 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 be 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 DeLillos from here in the mid 1990’s (End Zone, White Noise and Ratner’s Star…apparently I thought they were sci-fi novels, and on reading them I did think I had read sci-fi) These invisible Kenyans 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.

Then you can take some further detours along Haile and Moi Avenue. At the ‘Agip’ petrol station. Adjacent the Central Bank. The collection here is mostly girly pulp fiction. Nora Roberts and such hairstyles. But sometimes you get wonderful stuff. Last year I managed to pick up a bunch of Philip K. Dicks.

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 in those couple of years from just this spot. The news guys seem to have liased with City Council askaris and had the good fellows kicked out. The bad guys have now taken over. Their collection is crap. So is there 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 by 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. This spot also used to be good. There was another old fellow who used to have some very interesting books. Then his sons came in and took over and fucked 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. You can also try these 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. And there is a whole range of other sci-fi writers. 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 dude 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. Had never heard of him. Was a wonderful wonderful read.

The other fine spot is the one 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 the more literary sort of fiction. I have bought Beckett, Pynchon, DFW, Doriss Lessing, and even Soyinka’s “The Interpreters” from here (I have NEVER seen “The Interepreters” 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 are not conscious of it. Instead, there seems to be some strange kind of natural selection going 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 book place. There are those fellows around French Cultural Center, on Kenyatta Avenue, on Ronald Ngala and so on. Over Easter, I was playing in the National Chess Championships at Kenyatta University. So I got to pass by Githurai every morning for four days. Just at the round-about next to the highway there are a bunch of book hawkers there too. Most of them sell pulp fiction but I didn’t have time to explore for long. And who knows what is happening in Mombasa and Kisumu and Nakuru and so on. People are reading. Don’t think the only Women of the Aeroplanes are those you see within the established literary circles.



  1. Pingback: 7/7: Don't make me shush you! | Sooo Many Stories
  2. Simon · June 9, 2014

    You write wonderfully well. Love the window on a part of the world I don’t know, love the writing whatever you are describing. Thank you.

  3. msingi sasis · October 5, 2014

    I like this piece. Hehe…. Though that is no photograph of Nairobi, let alone downtown.

  4. I. (@ifehenia) · May 17, 2015

    This gives me a few more ideas. There’s another place along Tom Mboya. Before you get to World Business Centre (coming from Archives). The guy there stocks some pretty good stuff too. Got several Jodi Picoult books there. Some great Stephen King too.

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