Off the Books
An Accra Bookstore Offers a Glimpse Into Ghanaian Life
By Henry Robinson
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s a slow day at EPP Books. In mid-afternoon, the room is lit only by natural light – ceiling fans spin noiselessly, and a few browsers stroll among the metal shelves. The books themselves sit cover-facing-forward in wide aisles; fiction occupies one small corner, while textbooks and children’s books take up most of the prime shelf space.
Although it’s right at the edge of Accra’s bustling Makola Market and is the flagship location of a national chain, the store feels removed, under-frequented. I’ve only recently arrived in Ghana, and part of me is immediately tempted to extrapolate. Book-buying across Africa is low; bookstores here tend to be concentrated in cities, and the market favors skill-related texts over novels or more “serious” works of nonfiction. I reflexively think of this bookstore, seemingly bleak and utilitarian, as symbolic of these trends, before I even get the chance to look around.
But as I move through the room, pausing at a television quietly broadcasting a football match, I feel the same sensation that keeps me lingering in every bookstore I visit: peace. This isn’t a place tourists usually go. I wonder if it’s done this to everyone coming in today, easing them into quietness, letting them breathe after escaping the bustle at street level.
And the lack of crowds isn’t a constant, as I soon learn. Linda, the accounts manager, tells me that the bookstore’s currently in its “low season,” but that during the buying season, they can get upwards of 150 customers per day. Frank, one of the store clerks, gestures over to the collection of children’s books and tells me that large groups of kids often come in on Saturdays and during the school year, to buy pleasure reading or pick up class texts.
“We’re trying to set up a play area,” he adds with a smile.
For a Westerner, coming to Ghana for the first time can be an exercise in seeing past your own prejudiced gaze. I have my first experience with that here. I imagine what EPP Books must be like on its busier days – entertaining crowds of people from all different ages and walks of life, meeting to talk, browse, expand their intellectual horizons. I’m used to walking into a U.S. bookstore and (if I’m lucky) finding a good paperback for around $10. Here, I’m able to buy two books – a novel and a volume of African prison writing – for around 30 cedis, or $7.50. Most of the volumes are much cheaper. This isn’t an exclusive space; it’s affordable, welcoming anyone who wants to come in.
Even on this off day, I get a sense of the way this bookstore can reflect Ghana’s political and social text. Linda takes me over to a shelf full of books by Ghana’s former and current Presidents (John Mahama and Nana Akufo-Addo), as well as President Obama, telling me that last year, as both Mahama and Obama were leaving office, people flooded the store to buy their books. I at once recall our taxi driver from earlier in the day, who, through gritted teeth, told us that Ghana already missed its old president, and wished it could do the election over. And in the love for Obama, a world leader in the diaspora, I get my first glimpse of the pan-Africanism that will appear everywhere, from museums to storefronts to monuments.
I realize that I’m not in a detached, forgotten space, but rather a temporarily-abandoned enclave, an unforced and organic community. Whereas the Market outside is a sensory overload, crammed with bright colors and smells, this feels more contained, even introspective. People seem at ease here, vulnerable in a way they aren’t among the complex performances going on in the street.
Walking among the children’s books, I come across one such man; he looks to be in his 60s or early 70s. His name, he tells me, is George. Since he’s looking at children’s books, I assume he’s buying someone a present – perhaps a grandchild. But when I ask him what he’s looking for, he says that he’s actually looking for a book that can teach him how to sew. He gives me a sheepish smile as he admits that, although he’s been sewing his whole life, he’s come all the way to Accra to find out how to do a better job. He wants a book aimed at younger readers, that can take him through the basics.
He comes to bookstores for the same reason I do: to be at ease with his own limitations, even as he strives to better himself.
Henry Robinson ’19 is an English and South Asian Studies major in Silliman College. Contact him at email@example.com.