Amsterdam-based bookshop and publishing company MENDO has become known as „a candy store for book aficionados.“ We talked to the co-owner and publisher Gunifort Uwambaga about how he fell in love with reading and how physical bookshops can continue to be relevant in the digital age.
What sparked your love for books?
I'm originally from Rwanda. When I was seven years old, I fled to the Netherlands as a refugee. My mum was keen for my brother and I to learn Dutch as quickly as possible, so every Wednesday she would take us to the library and have us pick out a couple of books to read for the week. This little routine is pretty much where my passion for books was first instilled in me. Now that I am the proud father of a one-year-old son, I hope to inspire the same love for books in him.
What inspired you to work in the book business?
I originally came to Amsterdam to complete my BSc in Business Administration and MSc in Information and Knowledge Management from the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. One day, almost ten years ago, I walked into MENDO, and I immediately fell in love with it. The interior was completely black, all the books were beautifully presented, and the lighting was just perfect. It was like entering a club or restaurant rather than a bookshop. The following week I started working part-time at the store alongside my studies.
What did you do after you finished studying?
I worked briefly in banking after I had completed my masters, but still maintained my job at MENDO on the weekends, which led to some interesting conversations. Some of my clients would walk into the store and be like, ‘why does my banker need a side job?' This made me question why I couldn't let go of MENDO, and I realized it was because what I was doing at the bank wasn't making me happy. So I made a proposition to the owners of the book shop and explained to them what sort of opportunities I saw with the business. To my surprise, they liked my ideas, so I quit my job at the bank and became a partner and publisher at MENDO.
„We don‘t just sell books, we strive to curate a selection of visually inspiring titles for our customers.“
What is so special about MENDO in comparison to other bookstores, or buying books online?
It is not a secret nowadays that most bookstores are struggling. They are especially struggling to keep up with the digital era, and they find themselves trapped by trying to offer everything. Amazon can do that and prosper, but that's not a good business model for physical shops. So, at MENDO, we don't just sell books, we strive to curate a selection of visually inspiring titles for our customers.
Why is curation so important?
In the world around us, we see that there is this increasing desire and need for curation and tangibility. All the information that gets consumed through social media is fleeting; it's not something physical you can hold or put on your table at home. So, that's what we offer at MENDO. We're also very known for our limited edition books, which are art objects in themselves. This is one of our ambitions, to change the perception that people have of the medium of a book. Another thing that sets us apart from other companies is the fact we employ a superb team of knowledgeable, youthful, intelligent, well-trained individuals to engage with our customers. Finding, training, and retaining talent is imperative if you want to stand out in this business.
How do you spend your time outside of MENDO?
I serve also a supervisory board member of the international photography festival, UNSEEN and am an acting youth ambassador for the Stedelijk Museum. When I think back to a couple of years ago, when my life existed out of excel spreadsheets and EBIDTA calculations, I am very grateful that I now spend my days learning about books, photography, and art.
Text: Emily May
Photography: Jordi Huisman
Production by FvF Productions