What you need to know:
- Wendy Njoroge and Muthoni Muiruri are founders of Soma Nami which runs as a book club and a book store, designed as a social place
- They are paying homage to African authors by stocking their titles
There is the book club. Then there's a- not- your typical book store.
Even Muthoni and Wendy didn't see this coming. The pair met at a book club that Wendy administered. Although they were in the same space for about two years, none of them had initiated a conversation.
But, they have fond memories of each other. Like a time Muthoni hosted a book session. "She moderated it very well and kept us engaged. She had on some blue colour polish," Wendy recalls with a chuckle.
We are holding this conversation on the ground floor of their book store, Soma Nami at Greenhouse mall, Ngong road. Around us are rows of spines with titles I have always dreamt of reading, lined up as fiction, non-fiction, and children-targeted titles.
The space offers a quiet and convivial atmosphere, where you want to talk not only about books but your woes too.
Since opening the doors to their bookshop a few weeks ago, photos of this space have been shared dozens of times online. It is a book shop that has set on a new model.
"When we decided to get into the business of books, we were intentional on deviating from the operations of the good old book store. We are readers and personally, this has something that I have always envisioned— a place where someone can have a sit-down, read a book, or engage in conversations around books," offers Muthoni.
Towards the end of last year, the two co-owners started discussing the accessibility of books.
"Getting some books here is difficult especially books from African authors whom we were primarily interested in. I have a relative who periodically lived in the UK and I remember that I had to keep tabs about his coming so I could ask for a favour - a book," says Wendy adding that the challenge spurred them to have an online bookstore.
By this time, many things had happened. Muthoni, who has a background in international relations and psychology had left Wendy's book club, formed a different one—bookish people— now Soma Nami, and started a blog under the same title where she'd review books, chronicle her thoughts and give recommendations.
After leaving her workplace in 2018, Wendy requested that she joins Muthoni's book club. "Whenever we were having a book club meeting to discuss the book of the month, our biggest headache was the location. "Do you have a plug for a serene place? We'd often ask one another."
"So how can we make it easier for a book club that's not big on spending? We felt that this was lacking in the market. We are encouraging creatives in their expression because one thing about us is that we are very big on creating communities," offers Muthoni.
As you climb up the stairs to a luxurious seating area that's open to using for free by content creators or hosting trivia, a feature wall, an ode to African writers ushers you in.
"This is us paying homage to the African authors we love. Muthoni created the pieces, by the way. She is a digital artist but also we were cash strapped so we didn't have a budget to commission artists," says Wendy.
Besides the lounge area, here, you can have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine surrounded by soothing music as you read or engage with others.
"This is a loved aspect of this space. The idea is to make people loosen up. Also, book clubs meetings tend to be informal."
Before establishing a physical store, they started by selling online and followed it up with pop-up markets. "With the ascension of e-books and the fact that we are a start-up, we were afraid of not making substantial sales. So we bought single copies of the books so that if we didn't sell them, we'd be reading them for a long time," shares Wendy.
"The reception on social media was overwhelming and has continued to work as one of our most effective tools in marketing and we do a live session every Friday afternoon. When we opened this space, another worry was based on the fact that we are not at the storefront. Interestingly, we have not had a quiet day since we opened."
Coming from different career paths and backgrounds, Muthoni offers that their biggest success factor is that they are each other's cheerleaders. "We have a shared passion and vision. With Wendy, we don't even have the same discussion twice. If either of us floats an idea that we both agree on, there's no derailment. Also, we both have families, are young mothers, and with other engagements outside Soma Nami. When indisposed, one of us steps in," she shares.
Their two biggest challenges thus far have been getting books on credit from suppliers. "This was much harder when we were only online but with a physical shop now, we are progressively building trust with our suppliers. Another challenge we face is that shipping across Africa is not a very straightforward thing the costs are still high. Did I mention balancing between family and the business?" says Wendy.
The duo is keen to make available all genres of books by African authors and shop on behalf of their clients the books that they cannot find in the country.
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