musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Bookselling in Bangkok

This month marks the tenth anniversary of my bookshop in Bangkok. We were in the midst of an anniversary sale earlier this week when the Thai Army declared martial law. Two days after that they officially ousted the caretaker government in yet another military coup (the previous one occurred in 2006). Here we go again. Whatever you want to say about living in Thailand, it’s certainly never dull!

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It seems like only a few short months ago that I was worrying about how I was going to obtain enough books to stock the shelves of the bookshop that I planned to open in Bangkok. Ten years already? Damn, the time truly has flown by. Back in early 2004 I was still running a small secondhand bookshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It had been open for about two years, but I was missing Bangkok, plus getting the itch to open a bigger and better bookshop. So I did it.

Anyone who has ever operated a retail business knows about the ups and downs involved. I’ve worked, managed, or owned a variety of retail business for 35 years, so I’m quite accustomed to the myriad challenges, but running a business in Thailand has its owns distinct quirks. For one thing, if I was going to adhere to the business laws for foreign residents in Thailand, not only did I need to apply for a work permit and get the proper non-immigrant visa, I also needed a Thai business partner. Luckily, there was one trusty Thai man I knew (we had worked together at Tower Records in Bangkok in the late 1990s) who had both the desire and the financial means to go into business with a knucklehead like me.

After three frenzied months of planning and activity (finding a building to rent, finding a large quantity of books, finding contractors to renovate the building, finding sources for coffee beans and cakes and other items) we opened Dasa Books on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. We had less than 7,000 books when we first opened, but today the stock hovers between 16,000 and 17,000 books, occupying three floors of retail space.

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You hear a lot these days about bookshops losing business or even closing down. People are either reading less — or at least that’s the perception if you listen to the “experts” — or they have “converted” to e-books and e-readers, forsaking the paper tome altogether. Well, from my perspective I’m not seeing that at all. Maybe the fact that we primarily sell secondhand books has given us some immunity against the e-reading trend, or the fact that expats in this part of the world tend to be readers instead of TV zombies, but our business has been increasing, not decreasing, over the past decade. Hey, knock on wood, I’ll take it, and hope that trend continues!

One other trend I’ve noticed in recent years is the new breed of younger customers and they way that they shop for books. Unlike older customers who will often bring with them a list of books that they are looking to buy, the new breed of customers consults their smart phone instead. The odd thing with most of these younger folks, however, is that they seemingly have no idea how to find a book on the shelves once they are inside the shop. They can quickly surf online, or click away effortlessly on their phone, but put them in a shop with real books and they appear stumped as to how to find anything. And it’s not like things are that hard to find in my shop. We keep the shop very well organized: all books are filed in alphabetical order by author and divided into specific categories. And yet many people just can’t figure it out. No wonder they are more comfortable shopping online!

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A more annoying trait of the younger generation is their obliviousness and sense of entitlement. We literally have a handful of seats in my bookshop, and yet some insufferable people will occupy a single table for hours on end, tapping away on their laptop or playing with their phone (I call them: “iMasturbators”), or chatting with friends, all while nursing a single drink. In my mind, these people are more pests than customers. There are days when I wish I could spray them with some magical solution and watch them vaporize. Good riddance!

Thankfully, the pests are in the minority and the vast majority of our customers are really cool, book-loving types. Take, for example, the first five customers who came to my shop this morning, all of whom are regulars. One is a retired Thai man who reads mostly non-fiction titles, between four and five fairly thick books every week. I’m continuously amazed at the variety, and volume, of books that this guy reads. The second man in the store today is Belgian and has lived in Thailand for several decades. He buys books in English, German, French, and Dutch. Not surprisingly, he has also done several book translations for a local publisher. Customer number three this morning was another retired man, Burmese by birth, schooled in the USA, and a resident of Thailand for 30 years. He’s big on historical fiction and loves to joke with me about politics, the dysfunctional Thai or American brands. The fourth customer in the store was a talkative Australian (is there any other kind?) who buys a lot of classic and contemporary fiction. Number five this morning was a British woman who buys mostly crime fiction and mysteries. Those first five customers were followed by a Chinese mother and her four children, all of them picking out books in English to read. Later in the morning a Buddhist monk stopped by to pick up a book on home improvement!

And that’s just a snapshot of a typical hour at the bookshop. I love this business and the rainbow of customers who come to shop for books. Sign me up for another colorful and interesting ten years!

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