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Covid and passion for books brought me here

Soma Nami Books Director Wendy Njoroge during an interview at the bookshop along Ngong road Nairobi. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Wendy Njoroge's journey into the literary world began when she was just a child reading her elder siblings' books, but it went to the next level on two different occasions. The first was when a friend informed her Text Book Centre (TBC) was looking to fill a vacancy.

"So during the interview one of the interviewers asked what I would do differently and I was like, 'Why don't you have a book club?' and he said, 'Should you come, that will be your first assignment!"

Once she got the job, she set up the Text Book Centre (TBC) Book Club. The book club is still running years after she left, something she is proud of.

"I even have a free guide on how to start and run a book club on my website because I had to try many things and fail, and now I know what creates that gel," she says.

The second time her literary journey took an unexpected turn - she was working at a tech company that did not survive the pandemic and she suddenly found herself out of a job.

"I found myself at home for days without having to go anywhere, and I think that period just gave me time to be reflective and read a lot, but also think without the constrictions of showing up somewhere. Had Covid not happened, I would probably just be sitting in an office somewhere," she says.

Wendy had been in a book club known as Bookish People together with her current business partner Muthoni Muiruri, and when the pandemic came around, they had to take their meetings online as it was no longer safe to meet in person.

"There is the chemistry that is lost online, so by the end of 2020, the vibe had started to fizzle. But interestingly, Muthoni and I were interfacing a lot more," she says.

At Bookish People, one of their mandates was to read books from Africa. They would research and settle on a book they wanted to read as a book club, but would find that they could not find it in bookstores in Nairobi. An idea slowly started forming in their minds. "How hard can it be?" They would ask each other about the possibility of bringing the books to Kenya.

"At the beginning of 2021, we just said, 'You know what? Let us start the bookstore. Let us try and find these books that even we want to read'," says Wendy.

Muthoni had been blogging on somanami.co.ke, where she posts reviews of books she had read, so they already had a website to work with. They decided to make it a store and launched the Soma Nami bookstore online in February 2021.

"We were scared. We were wondering if we knew enough people interested in the books. And we did not have as many books as you see now," she says, referring to the many books on the shelves around us in the cosy bookstore. "We had a copy of each book, less than 50 titles."

If it did not work out, they would have shelved the books in their libraries and called it a day, but the launch turned out to be a hit with readers. After having the bookstore purely online when they launched last year in February, they went to a pop-up (temporary market) in May 2021 and displayed their books, which turned out to be a pivotal moment.

"It was such a defining moment for us, seeing the people behind the social media handles and having great conversations," says Wendy.

"We had always imagined we would open a physical shop at some point in future, but it did not look like it was that urgent. But after we went to that pop-up and met people, we knew we had to do it because there is magic in human interaction."

They fast-tracked their plans and opened the current physical bookstore at Greenhouse along Ngong Road in August. The focus of the bookstore is Pan-African and women writers. "So we have Africans in the diaspora like the Caribbean, black British, black Americans, people of colour - we have several books from South East Asia - basically underrepresented and marginalised voices," says Wendy.

I notice a Brandon Sanderson collection.

"Oh you fantasy fans!" she says with a laugh. "Okay it is not exclusively, it is a majority. For us the revolutionary thing is that when you go to the regular bookstore, you find that those voices are in the minority, but here, we have made it the majority."

Another distinction is that they usually have books on the day the book is launched, which has made Soma Nami a reader-favourite. The Bookish People book club transitioned into the Soma Nami book club, and is today one of the most popular book clubs in Kenya, with a couple of thousands of followers online and around 320 active book club members.

"We want to open up a different Africa for you as a book club member. This year alone we have read a book from Somaliland and Liberia. In June, we made an exception because it was the Caribbean Heritage Month so we read from Trinidad and Tobago, Kenya, and Nigeria; currently, we are reading a book from Zimbabwe. The idea is to paint a holistic picture of what the African experience looks like."

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