When Dawda Bah thinks back to his childhood in Bakau, a small coastal town in Cape Gambia, he remembers working in his father’s store which sold imported second-hand clothes to locals.
“My father was very committed to respecting customers,” said Bah, 42. “It didn’t matter if they spent a dollar or $ 100.”
Since then, Bah has longed for the independence of being his own boss, and the pandemic has prompted him to do so.
Standing in his apartment in central Vancouver in December, clutching a stack of books in his hands, he reflected on the path that led him to starting his own business as an online second-hand bookseller. And now a new goal has materialized: to return to his hometown of Bakau to improve the reading culture with his book sales business.
Bah left The Gambia after high school to study law in Birmingham, England, where his uncle lived. In 2002, he moved to Vancouver to attend Clark College, a school his brother chose because of its affordability.
“It was a bit of a culture shock, but not a lot because I was living in England,” Bah said. “It wasn’t very multicultural, but the people were nicer than in Birmingham.
Bah married and had children, but began working before earning his associate degree. Jobs at SEH America and contract work at Intel and other semiconductor companies started to drain him – sometimes he worked 12 hours a day.
“It wasn’t easy,” he says. “I knew I wanted more.”
By enrolling in Colorado State University’s online courses, Bah earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international business while working and raising his children. then he and his wife divorced and he moved into his apartment.
Once the pandemic hit, things started to change as isolation and stress began to weigh on him. Bah assessed his interests and his situation; he lived one block from the post office and he also enjoyed reading books and writing (he had previously written a book called “The Secret Powers of Meditation: Getting Healthier, Richer, and Happier” in 2018). He was interested in business and his father’s lessons in customer service had pierced him since he was a boy working in the Bakau store.
At local Goodwill, Bah first discovered the margins he could earn by selling used books. With his smartphone, he scanned books to display their prices on Amazon’s used book listings. One book, a medical reference, was on sale for $ 3.99 at Goodwill, but on Amazon it was selling for over $ 21.
“It was almost like winning the lottery,” he said.
In July of last year, Bah launched his store, which sells books on Amazon and eBay under the title Bookseller of Bakau. He bought boxes of books from local residents seeking to unload them through Facebook. He visited real estate sales or thrift stores for the products. About four months after selling parallel books, he realized he could make a living from them.
“It was scary,” he recalls. “I had to worry about insurance and bills. I had to believe in myself and try something.
Standing in his bedroom, where a fraction of Bah’s books for sale are stacked, Bah said he has expanded into selling magazines, DVDs, sports cards and even VHS tapes. He even rented a storage unit to store most of his goods.
His daughters, aged 7, 10 and 14, help him occasionally with the business, just as he did with his father’s store.
But it’s not always easy to get the product. He buys some new books from bookstores, but has been targeted as a reseller by a local branch of a large bookstore, and he has to go to another branch in Portland to get the product.
Bah’s goal went beyond the need to make a living in a post-pandemic world. So far he has raised over 2,000 books and is aiming for many more. He is saving enough money to ship them all to a container ship in Bakau, where he wants to open a physical bookstore for residents of his hometown, he said.
He wants to call the bookstore “Noor”, named after the word “light” in Arabic.
The process of finding a shipping container and starting a business overseas comes with its own challenges, but Bah’s degree in International Business helps him figure it out.
“I guess my school wasn’t a mess,” he said.