Dawda Bah came to Vancouver in 2002 to study at Clark College
By Will Campbell, Columbian Innovation Editor
When Dawda Bah thinks back to his childhood in Bakau, a small coastal Gambian cape town, he remembers working at his father’s store that sold imported, used clothing to the locals.
“My dad was big on respecting the customers,” said Bah, 42. “It didn’t matter if they were spending a dollar or $100.”
Since then, Bah has yearned for the independence of being his own boss, and the pandemic pushed him to do it.
Standing in his central Vancouver apartment in December, clutching a pile of books in his hands, he reflected on the path that led him to start his own business as an online used bookseller. And now, a new goal has materialized: return to his hometown of Bakau to improve the reading culture with his book-selling business.
Bah left 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 little bit of culture shock, but not a lot because I was living in England,” Bah said. “It wasn’t very multicultural, but people were friendlier than in Birmingham.”
Bah married and had kids, but he began working before completing his associate degree. Jobs at SEH America and contract work at Intel and other semiconductor companies started to drain him — at times, he was working 12-hour days.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “I knew I wanted more.”
Enrolling in Colorado State University’s online classes, Bah earned his bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in international business while working and raising his kids; then he and his wife divorced and he moved into his apartment.
Once the pandemic hit, things began to change as the isolation and stress began to weigh on him. Bah assessed his interests and his situation; he lived a block away from the post office and he also loved reading books and writing (he had already written a book called “The Secret Powers Of Meditation: Become Healthier, Wealthier And Happier” in 2018). He had interests in business and his father’s lessons of customer service drilled into him since he was a boy working in the Bakau store.
At a local Goodwill, Bah first discovered the margins he could earn from selling used books. With his smartphone, he scanned books to show their prices on Amazon’s used book listings. One book, a medical reference book, was for sale for $3.99 at Goodwill, but on Amazon, it was selling for more than $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 offload them through Facebook. He visited estate sales or thrift stores for products. About four months into selling books on the side, he realized he could make a living out of it.
“It was scary,” he recalled. “I had to worry about insurance and bills. I had to believe in myself and go for something.”
Standing in his bedroom, where a fraction of Bah’s for-sale books are stacked, Bah said he’s expanded to selling magazines, DVDs, sports cards, and even VHS tapes. He even rented a storage unit to store most of his goods.
His daughters, ages 7, 10 and 14, occasionally help him with the business, just like he did with his father’s store.
But it’s not always easy getting the product. Some books he buys new from bookstores, but he’s been targeted as a reseller by one local branch of a major bookstore, and he must drive to a different branch in Portland to get the product.
Bah’s goal has gone beyond the need to make a living in a post-pandemic world. So far, he’s collected over 2,000 books and aims for many more. He is saving enough money to ship them all in a container ship to Bakau, where he wants to open a brick-and-mortar bookstore for the people of his hometown, he said.
He wants to call the book store “Noor,” named after the word “light” in Arabic.
The process of finding a shipping container and beginning a business overseas has its own challenges, but Bah’s degree in international business is helping him figure it out.
“I guess my school wasn’t a waste,” he said.