Why I won’t forget Smith Hempstone, Moi and Biwott

The founder of Textbook Centre Chhaganlal D. Shah at the book shop. Photo/ANTHONY OMUYA

What you need to know:

  • He names Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and Meja Mwangi as some of the authors that were selling big numbers. “I remember selling over 5,000 copies of JM Kariuki’s Mau Mau Detainees in Murang’a alone. That sort of thing is now gone.”
  • Mr Moi and Biwott claimed The Rogue Ambassador brought their characters and reputations “to public odium, scandal and contempt.”

In 1958 when the struggle for independence was at its violent peak, the countryside in central Kenya was a very dangerous place to visit. Out of fear of the Mau Mau freedom fighters, few dared wander into certain areas.

But one man, Chhaganlal D. Shah, had no such fears traversing the vast region, because he brought a very valuable commodity to the locals — books.

“I never felt unsafe travelling all through Murang’a,” says Chhaganlal. “Back then, a book seller was regarded highly because he brought knowledge. I would go all the way to the edge of Kimakia and Aberdare forest, where the Mau Mau were known to be. If I had a problem with transport, for instance, people would rush to help.”

He has been selling books for the past 55 years. He fondly remembers the pre-independence days: “The faces of children and teachers when they received the books are unforgettable.”

“You would see people almost in tears. We were doing business, but for the people it was the biggest service,” Chhaganlal says at his modest Kijabe Street first floor Text Book Centre office, where he is a director.

Chhaganlal was born in 1936 in India, but was raised and went to school in Kenya. He considers himself every bit a self-made man. He went to City Primary School and then proceeded to The Duke of Gloucester School, now Jamhuri High School, between 1951 and 1954.

“After high school, I went looking for a job and found one at the East African High Commission, doing clerical work. After a few months, I went to Murang’a, where my career in books soon begun.”

In Murang’a, the young Chhaganlal was employed as a store keeper by an Indian family. At the time, the people of the central region were restricted from leaving their village settlements, and there was an acute shortage of books.

Education was being dolled in small doses by the colonialists and the Kikuyu Bible and the hymn book — Ngai Mutheru — were the fastest selling books.

“The education officer in the region at the time approached the Vidhu and Rughani families, who were doing business in the region, to set up bookshops to bridge the gap and provide much needed books for the locals.”

The two families heeded the call. Chhaganlal happened to be working for the Vidhu family.

Having noticed Chhaganlal’s interest in books, the family tasked him with the job of running the new bookshop.

“The first two bookshops were opened in 1958,” he says. “One called Vidhu Bookshop was opened in Murang’a, while Rughani Bookshop was opened in Nyeri. Around 1960, we opened two more; Embu Bookshop in Embu and Variety Bookshop in Meru.”

Chhaganlal notes with excitement that the Daily Nation was founded the same year as their book shops.

“I remember when the first copy of the Nation came out in 1958. I sold 10 copies at 20 cents each at the Vidhu Bookshop in Murang’a,” he says.

As the books business grew, Chhaganlal’s dexterously grew with it, too. “I learnt on the job because I was exposed to all these books. The British Council at the time used to have courses on bookselling and I did a few of these. Overall, however, experience taught me the business. We supplied books to all schools in the region.”

Independence came in 1963, but the new government came with different rules that were about to put the bookshops out of business.

“The new government came in with a tender system. This meant that anyone, whether they owned a bookshop or not, could get a contract to supply books to schools and institutions. We bid for the tenders but lost out. We lost our core wholesale business. Selling books on a retail basis didn’t generate enough revenue to keep the shops running.”

Unable to move the stock they already had, the proprietors transported the books to Nairobi and started selling them to other bookshops. While doing this, Mr Rughani and his partners decided to set up a bookshop in the capital.

“In 1964, Text Book Centre was born. They set up a shop on the New Grogan Road, which is now Kijabe Street. There were only a few buildings and a dirt road here back then.”

When the proprietors found they needed help, Chhaganlal, or simply CD as he is fondly referred to by his staff, was called from Murang’a to come and run the new store.

As the Nairobi business grew, the proprietors shut down operations in the stores in central Kenya. “The central Kenya stores were given to the Africans we had been working with,” he says. “Vidhu became Mbiri Bookshop and the store in Nyeri became Mount Kenya Bookshop. They continued to buy books from us.”

In Nairobi, business grew and Text Book Centre begun supplying books to universities and other bookshops in the country. “The education system was growing and we grew with it.”

In 1980, Text Book Centre, now established, decided to open a general book store.

“Prior to this, people like JM Kariuki and Tom Mboya were releasing books and these were very much in demand. We opened the general store across our main store,” Chhaganlal says.

At this period, the Rughani and Vidhu family felt that they had enough capital to invest more. The families, again in a joint venture, constructed the Sarit Centre in 1983.

“When the Sarit Centre was complete, naturally we opened a store there. The mall was the first of its kind and it was an attraction, there were a lot of amenities, and such chains as the Uchumi Supermarkets opened there.”

For the next two decades, Text Book Centre thrived. In 2005 and 2006, the management once again decided to try something different.

“For all these years, the customers had always come to us, so we thought it proper to now go to where the customers were and we opened branches in Kakamega, Lang’ata, The Junction and now Thika Road Mall,” adds Chhaganlal.

An attempt to expand to Uganda where a Kampala branch was opened failed because it was located out of the town and had little or no traffic. “The Kakamega branch is also currently suffering a similar fate.”

Chhaganlal estimates that Text Book Centre, from its humble beginnings supplying books to rural schools, is now worth over Sh1 billion.

“We are now looking to e-books. We already have stands in our stores where you can get them, but the sales haven’t picked up yet. We are hiring people to look into strategic development.”

The seasoned book man is saddened by the decline in readership and buying of local books. “In the early years after independence, the only people who bought foreign books were foreigners. People, including myself, were crazy about African writers. My favourites were Things Fall Apart, Weep Not Child and Jomo Kenyatta’s Suffering Without Bitterness.”

He names Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and Meja Mwangi as some of the authors that were selling big numbers. “I remember selling over 5,000 copies of JM Kariuki’s Mau Mau Detainees in Murang’a alone. That sort of thing is now gone.”

He blames the advent of television, the Internet and the fact that Kenyans are busier for the dearth in reading culture. “People are reading less now because there are more things to do. Back in my Murang’a days, there was no TV or theatres, so people read. Today, people read mostly newspapers and magazines, and if they have a little time left maybe they will squeeze in a book.”

Chhaganlal adds that back then, there were book clubs, poetry reading and radio shows that encouraged reading. Now, he says, there are no good books coming out and even publishers are finding it economically convenient to publish only school books. While he says children’s literature has developed, general books targeting adults have dwindled.

“There was the East African Publishing House doing nothing but general books. But where are they now? East African Education Publishers had over 200 titles in the African Writers Series. If they were able to do it then, where is the effort now? Writers like David Maillu published over 20 books; they wouldn’t have done that if they weren’t selling,” he says emphatically.

It’s almost impossible for a writer, says Chhaganlal, to make a living out of writing in Kenya unless they are well-known.

Even if a writer manages to get the nod of a publisher, the process is still discouraging, he contends. “An author would have to wait two to three years to see their work in print, and by then the writer will have lost interest. Eventually, what comes out, in terms of royalties, is so small that they might feel cheated.”

Even so, Chhaganlal feels that writers themselves don’t do enough to market their published books. “Sometimes you will stock a book, all the copies will sell, but you will forget to order more because books are so many these days. Back in the day, publishers had agents going around seeing if stores needed more orders. That doesn’t happen today so you will have a book out of order for a long time.”

In his long career, the 1982 coup attempt remains the lowest moment in his life. “Our store was broken into on the first day of the coup attempt and we couldn’t get the police.”

To make matters worse, his son was travelling from Kisumu by train and got stranded at the Kibera Railway Station. “We were very worried because we had no way of going to get him. He had to spend the night there.”

The worst was, however, still to come. “I was living with my family on the top floor of the book shop here on Kijabe Street. On the second night, three soldiers came up to the house with guns and demanded money. They were threatening to shoot me and my family. We opened up and gave them everything. Eventually they left.”

So, how has he managed to steer the Text Book Centre boat safely for the last five and a half decades in the treacherous waters that is Kenya’s book trade? How did he manage to evade such libel suits as those which cost two bookshops Sh10 million in 2000 for selling Dr Ian West’s Casebook, an account of the Ouko murder?

“No, no, but we have also been there,” he corrects us.

“After the publication of The Rogue Ambassador (in which former US ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone adversely mentions retired President Daniel Moi and former minister Nicholas Biwott following the murder of former Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko), the minister came and told us to withdraw the book. Of course there was no order banning the book, but Biwott’s word was law then. We withdrew the book and settled the matter out of court.”

He could not disclose the amount the bookshop parted with, but he says they soldiered on.

Mr Moi and Biwott claimed The Rogue Ambassador brought their characters and reputations “to public odium, scandal and contempt.”

Today, when he is not dealing with books, he spends his time at the Hindu Swayamsevak Sang and Hindu Religious and Service Centre, where he is the chairman. And he says these centres give him as much pleasure as books do.

“The centre is meant to ensure that Kenyans of Indian origin do not forget their history, culture and religion. We do a lot of charity work as well, providing daily meals for about seven underprivileged schools. We dig boreholes and have also so far planted over 61,000 trees in a lot of places mostly around Ndakaini Dam.”

Chhaganlal and his wife recently celebrated 50 years of marriage. “My two sons and daughter are now happily married. It’s now just my wife and I, all I can say is everything has worked out smoothly,” he concludes contentedly.