When theMagunga Bookstore – Kenya’s online shop for African reads- first came up online, Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges author, Ciku Kimeria, termed it as the “African version of Amazon.” Budding writer, Troy Onyango, noted excitedly that it would no longer be “so difficult finding African literature” and a good number of us, literary enthusiasts, shared links to the store on our Facebook timelines.
Bookstores have been facing something like an existentialist crisis as spaces that have to justify and meet the commercial value of their existence. Locally, they have to compete with the more affordable bendover bookstores. The trouble with bendover bookstores is that while they give readers a wider selection of books at cheaper prices, they lack in local and even pan-African selections.
On the whole, the physical book and physical bookstores are threatened by ebooks and virtual stores such as Amazon. The need to pay for physical locations to stock and sell books is a great limiting factor to the selections in bookstores. Personally, I often find a huge gap between what I want and what is offered. So the problem is not that there are no readers: in many cases, local bookstores do not offer enough in their literary selections. The enthusiasm seen in the Facebook posts about theMagunga Bookstore (www.books.magunga.com/) prove that there are readers who are frustrated by the generic, mostly foreign titles that feature on the shelves of local bookstores. (In many cases, the people manning the stands are unaware of authors or books.)
In doing so, bookstores assume people’s choices while also limiting people’s the opportunity to choose. For instance you are more likely to know of and get a copy of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than Servio Gbadamosi’s A Tributary in Servitude. Although Gbadamosi is not as well-known as Lee, in denying his book a space to be stocked his work continues to be obscure and readers are not given the opportunity to interact with his work.
In many cases, the commercial value of a book supersedes it literary merit and limited demand. I was recently told at a local store that they would not order a book for me because I would be the only customer buying, while another was unable to get a book from a South Africa writer in time for my partner’s birthday.
Accessibility to literary texts from the continent can be problematic. It makes no sense why books by writers from a continent are not readily available to even a handful of readers. Or that the excuse for their unavailability is the lack of market.
The experience of buying books is one of the marks of a bookstore. This experience is informed by how well the owner knows reader tastes and preferences and how accessible these books are. Although this bookstore caters to the literati, it improves accessibility and changes how we consume literature. It localises the contact between the work of writers and their readers or literary enthusiasts. It gives writers a place to reach to readers and fans.
By taking advantage of a less traditional space, theMagunga Bookstore is a pioneer in what local websites, blogs and online magazines can do to increase readership on and offline. All one needs to do is click, buy and read. It also proves that it is possible to find spaces and a market for books that have no place in the commercial market.
Currently available on the store are some of this year’s latest releases from writers in East, West and South Africa. There is a mix of poetry and prose including Dami Ajayi’s Clinical Blues, Harriet Anena’s A Nation in Labour, Abigail Arunga’s Akello, the recently launched anthology from Lesleigh Kenya, Fifth Draft and Zukiswa Wanner’s Men of the South. The collection has gotten the bookstore off to an optimistic start.
Perhaps because it has only started, theMagunga Bookstore is yet to finish categorising its selections. However, clicking through each book gives the potential reader/buyer a synopsis of the particular book. Browsing through is straightforward: a few clicks and you’re on your way to a great reading experience. Given the popularity of this blog, local publishers and distributors should take advantage of the space to get to more readers and increase the current collection.