Reading for mental wealth: Second-hand books a source of business and pleasure in Nairobi streets

Three-year-old Maxwell Gitau has a lot to live up to. He is named for his father’s hero: John C. Maxwell the self-styled leadership guru and motivational speaker from Garden City, Michigan, whose books have sold over 19 million copies and hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Maxwell’s father, David Gitau, makes his living selling second-hand books on a pollution-steeped street in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. But for David and his business partner, Tony, the business provides more than just a living – it supplies intellectual sustenance too.

Before their foray into Nairobi’s used book market, both men made a living through odd jobs, mostly manual labour – one of the few sources of employment for poorer Kenyans.

David says he grew to love books as a teenager, but couldn’t pursue his literary interests when he finished school because the physically demanding nature of his work left him exhausted when he got home.

“I found myself not reading because of the jobs I was doing,” he says. “But when I came here, I started reading; I went back to my reading culture.”

The small street business that David and Tony started three years ago allows them to make a generous living. They estimate that their stand brings in around $35 daily, a royal sum in Kenya where most people survive on about $2 a day.

But the stand has also allowed the men to start thinking about their futures, and the future of their country.

The two men sell everything from Western classics to self-help guides and assiduously read all of their stock, carefully hand-picking every item from Nairobi’s Gikomba market, a sprawling circus of cheap second-hand goods

Tony says he likes to read historical non-fiction because understanding the past “allows us to probably be in a position to face where we are heading.” He says the most popular books at his stall are those that teach skills like entrepreneurialism: they’re eaten up by Kenyans eager to forge a better life.

Enter the venerated John C. Maxwell, whose motivational manuals are (according to his website) designed to “take your team to the next level in organizational development.” His ministries are being taken to heart in the streets of Nairobi, where books are becoming increasingly accessible and affordable for ordinary Kenyans; cheap second hand imports have driven down book prices, and purchasing power in Kenya has been inching steadily upwards for the past three decades.

 “I liked to be taught about leadership,” explains David. “I admire leadership because what we are lacking here in Africa is the kind of leadership styles that are from other countries, especially from the Western countries. If we have very wonderful visionary leaders, we can be somewhere.”

“It’s still not everyone who reads,” cautions Tony. “The low income person would say, better invest in clothes, food, rather than books. The middle class, they say better invest in mental wealth rather than material wealth.”

 But, he insists, “We are trying to uplift ourselves.”