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

Posts tagged ‘secondhand books’

Chinlone Books Opens in Mandalay

Next time you hear someone complain that there are no good secondhand bookshops in Myanmar, tell them about Chinlone Books, which just opened their biggest and best branch yet in Mandalay. Not only is it one of the very few bookshops in Myanmar, it’s a very good one too!

After opening their first branch last year in the Shan State town of Nyaung Shwe (located inside Aye Aye Travel), Chinlone Books decided to take a really big step and open up a proper bookshop in Central Mandalay. This took many months (well, a few years, all things considered) of planning, but earlier this month Ye Man Oo and his father, U Khin Maung Lwin, finally got the doors open!

Chinlone Books in Mandalay is not your typically disorderly secondhand bookshop that one finds so often in Southeast Asia. Instead, this is a very well organized, and surprisingly well stocked bookshop. They have a variety of fiction and non-fiction books in stock, including many books about Myanmar and Burmese history. They are also well-stocked with plenty of dictionaries and phrase books, and also have many titles for children, students, and young adults. In a cooking mood? They have plenty of books about cookery too.

In addition to books in English, they also stock books in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish and other Nordic languages. You might even find some Japanese, Turkish and Portuguese books if you look hard enough. And now that the shop is officially open, you can only expect the stock to grow and grow.

This has been a difficult and turbulent year for Myanmar, highlighted by the much-publicized problems in Rakhine State. Expectations for tourist arrivals are now much lower than expected at this time last year. Knowing that he can’t depend on a dwindling number of tourists to stay afloat, Ye Man Oo has astutely decided to also cater to the local market. You might be surprised or not, but a growing number of people in Myanmar enjoy reading books in English. In addition to adults and students (Mandalay is also home to an international school and several universities), Chinlone books also has some teachers and monks as regular customers. As any visitor to Myanmar soon discovers, the locals are incredibly curious and motivated people, and having a resource such as a secondhand bookshop in Mandalay, has been a delightful surprise for many.

Chinlone Books is located on 82 Street, between 33 and 34 Streets, just around the corner from the Hotel Queen, and within walking distance of the famous Zeigyo Market and Aye Mtyi Tar restaurant (which is on 81 Street). They are open daily from 9 am till 9 pm.

If you are in Mandalay, drop by the bookshop and give Ye Man Oo a hard time, or better yet, buy some books and enjoy a pleasant conversation with this impressive young businessman!

Fun Finds

I love hunting for old books when I’m on the road. In Yangon, the outdoor bookstalls on Pansodan Road can sometimes yield little treasures, and in Phnom Penh I always seem to find a gem or two at Bohr’s Books. While in Kuala Lumpur last week, I visited some several secondhand bookshops and also the BookXcess outlet in Petaling Jaya’s Amcorp Mall for some good cheap remainder titles.

One of the goodies I found at the Junk Bookstore in KL (and yes, that’s really the name of this shop) was Every Little Crook and Nanny a 1972 novel by Evan Hunter, the author also known as Ed McBain. Every Little Crook and Nanny is a bit different than McBain’s popular 87th Precinct series of novels, ones that have been dubbed “Police Procedurals.” This one is more of a comic caper, reminiscent of Donald Westlake’s delightful Dortmunder books. The Hunter novel features a cast of (almost) lovable Mafia goons, a hapless kidnapper, and a bizarre police officer or two. Good fun.


I also found a battered copy of Hot Day, Hot Night by Chester Himes, which is the sixth novel in the classic Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series. First published in 1969, this is a 1975 edition, big afros on the cover and all. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle called Himes “the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler.” Mayhem yarns? Whatever you want to call this style of crime fiction, it’s the addictive kind, and I look forward to reading this old Chester Himes novel very soon.


Yet another goodie I was thrilled to find was William Kotzwinkle’s Jack in the Box, one of the more warped coming-of-age tales that you are likely to read. Comic books, teenage hormones, and a wacky cast of characters make for a very humorous novel. Kotzwinkle is a brilliant writer who has written some of the funniest books around, The Bear Went Over the Mountain being one of most hilarious novels of all time, in my opinion. Really, that book was one of those laugh-out-loud tales that you’ll think about reading again a few years later, just to see if it’s still as funny as it was the first time. Jack in the Box isn’t nearly as guffaw-able, but it’s still an entertaining read. Kotzwinkle, by the way, wrote the screenplay for a movie you might have heard of: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

In addition to that lot, I found old paperbacks from authors such as Kingsley Amis, J.D. Donleavy, John D. MacDonald, Charles McCarry, Trevanian, Jonathan Raban, Arthur C. Clarke, E.L. Doctorow, Erle Stanley Gardner, M.C. Beaton, and two old “Quiller” novels by Adam Hall. Definitely not the latest best sellers, but this delightful mish-mash of books was just what I was looking for.

Literary Flavors

One of the most asked questions at my bookshop in Bangkok is: “Where do you get your books?” Except for a few titles from local authors that we take on consignment, along with new travel titles from Things Asian Press, all of our stock consists of secondhand books that we get locally. We don’t order or source anything from overseas or even domestically. The only exception would be my occasional forays to Kuala Lumpur, where I usually manage to find a variety of interesting books (more about my latest trip next week) to bring back.

In the early days/years of operating the bookshop, I used to buy books from secondhand dealers at Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market to supplement my stock. But in recent years I haven’t had to leave my shop at all due to the constant stream of people dropping by to sell or exchange books. We end up having to turn down many books because we are so overwhelmed with stuff. Not only are regular customers and tourists coming to do the selling and swapping, we also have many local Thais arriving with books to sell. Most of these “dealers” (for lack of a better term) get their books from local homes, apartment complexes, or hotels, and then sell them to us. The titles can be a mixed bag of languages (we see a lot of Swedish and Russian books, for example) and genres. Sometimes there are brand-new titles and sometimes I find books that are older than I am. Inside the books we uncover sundry items; old bookmarks, airline boarding passes, naughty photos, dead flowers, dead insects, and occasionally some money! Whether the book has collector’s value or not is of no concern to me. I’m certainly no antiquarian dealer (in fact, I think it’s fair to see that I despise the whole collector’s racket); I just think it’s a lot of fun to peruse the old titles.

Last week’s cache of books unearthed a particularly cool find: Flavours: Thailand’s 200 Most Interesting Restaurants by Harry Rolnick. That might not sound like a very interesting title, until you look inside and notice the publication date: 1972. Hoo, ha, this is going to good, I thought. And yes indeed it was, akin to a stroll down memory lane, and made even more fun by the irreverent writing style of Harry Rolnick.


Obviously, some of the restaurants listed in this book are long gone, but more than a few ARE still in operation. One of my friends and customers, Ing, came by the shop and perused the book, saying how it brought back so many memories of growing up in Bangkok during the 60s and 70s. She bought the book, but left it with me to look at for a few days. I thumbed through it and found some real gems. For example, the listing for Chokechai Restaurant in Thonburi says:
Snake? Bat’s Blood? Bear Salad? Elephant Knuckle? If such be your taste, Chokechai supplies the dishes. The English menu once was a discarded hunting license (they’ve since gone sophisticated and mimeographed one of the most hilarious and rare menus I’ve ever seen) and the game is fresh, much of it prepared at your table from just-killed animals. Mainly patronized by country people, the Chokechai is a bit difficult to find, but the dining is al fresco, the dishes quite splendid, prices ridiculously low, and even if your taste doesn’t run to crocodile tail, you’ll be entranced by the atmosphere. P.S. Elephant knuckle must be ordered 48 hours ahead of time … defrosting, you know.

For another place, dubbed “Khao Ka Moo,” Rolnick writes:

The reason for the obscure address is that there is no real name for this restaurant, it only serves one dish, and they’re all sold out by noon. The dish is roast pork leg with rice, it is reputed by pork-lovers to be THE restaurant for the stuff, and between 6:30 a.m. and noon, you’ll see crowds literally queuing up to taste it. Not being one of the Mystic Order of the Roast Pork Leg people, I find myself unable to understand the fascination, but swineologists swear by it, so who am I to be the sceptic?

And the listing for Thaweesak Bakery on Sukhumvit Road:
If you can walk by without buying a box or two to take home, you have the culinary emotions of a Cyclops. The atmosphere is decidedly youthful, with long-haired Thai and American teenagers torn between the éclairs and the sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Remember; this was written in 1972! The book has chapters for Thai, Western, Other Asian, and Outside Bangkok. It also includes a glossary of Thai foods, and “a selected list of rarer dishes.” Even though this guide is 40 years old — or maybe that fact actually enhances the appeal — this is fun reading for anyone who enjoys Bangkok history or Thai food.

After thumbing through the restaurant guide, I was intrigued: Who was this Harry Rolnick fellow? Looking at the author photo in the back of the guide, he appeared young at the time of publication, so I deemed it quite possible that he was still alive and kicking … and eating. I did an online search and found this Wikipedia entry:

Harry Rolnick is an American author, editor and music critic. His writing often examines Asian lifestyles and culinary traditions. Eating Out In China (1979) was the first book to explore People’s Republic restaurants. His other restaurant guides, to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Macau, prompted Alan Levy to write in The Foodie’s Guide to the World, “Nobody eats in Asia without consulting Harry Rolnick first”.

Rolnick has written a history of coffee, a guide to feng shui, and a social history of Macau. He also co-authored The Chinese Gourmet with William Mark. A native of New York, Rolnick was a Merchant Marine before taking residence in Thailand, where he was one of the first editors of the Bangkok Post and later Hong Kong, from where he traveled throughout Asia and East Africa for two decades. He has written articles for Lonely Planet, Newsweek, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, GEO and many other publications. In 1998, he edited the first English-language lifestyle magazine in Budapest, before returning to Manhattan.

Rolnick’s most recent book is Spice Chronicles: Exotic Tales of a Hungry Traveler (2008, Seven Locks Press)


It sounds like Rolnick has kept VERY busy since his young days in Bangkok. And his latest book, Spice Chronicles, sounds like a must-read for fans of food and travel.

Booming Book Business

These are rocky times in the book business. You read the alarming news reports every month: retail stores are closing in waves, people are reading less, and the few remaining readers — the ones who aren’t downloading porn or super-sizing it at the Golden Arches — are either buying their books online or switching to e-devices to feed their habit. And in this digitized modern world, people have more entertainment options than ever to take up what little free time they have. Between the Internet, DVDs, and other media distractions, people just don’t seem all that interested in reading as much as they used to do.


I own a secondhand bookshop, Dasa Books, in Bangkok, one that has been in business for seven years. At this point I’d like to think I know what I’m doing and am pretty good with this book stuff. This past December we had our best sales month ever. Then along came January 2011 and that was even better. Wow! So far, February has also been quite busy. How busy? I did a quick calculation of sales for the first two weeks of the month, and wango bango, we’ve done it again: the daily average thus far this month is, once again, our best ever. But I know the highs won’t last much longer. We’re still in the midst of “High Season” here in Thailand, and have lots of tourists to supplement our regular stable of customers. Plus, the annual Lunar (Chinese) New Year flow of visitors this month has also helped boast sales. It’s supposed to be a good time of year for business, but should it be this good?


Clearly, at least from my perspective here in Bangkok, people are still reading —and more importantly, buying — books. But my bookshop appears to be defying a worldwide trend, and thriving instead of dying. So what’s going on? I’d love to think that I possess some sort of magic touch, am a marketing genius, and have the uncanny ability to anticipate what customers want to buy. But no, that’s not it. I do make it a point to keep my shop well-stocked with a wide variety of titles in various genres, strive to create a comfortable shopping environment (we serve coffee and tea, and have tables and chairs for customers to sit and relax, and of course play great music), try to keep the shelves organized properly (apparently putting your books in alphabetical order is a rarely practiced concept here in Asia), keep our prices competitive (not dirt cheap but not expensive either), and offer a half-price back return policy on the secondhand books we sell. But the bottom line, I think, is that there are still many diehard readers who want to read real books. If you offer than a good selection of books at fair prices, they will come.


But over the mountains and across the sea, retailers in America are singing the blues: business sucks and many stores are going out of business or filing for bankruptcy. The impact of those shiny new electronic readers — Amazon’s Kindle, the Nook from Barnes & Noble, and the new iPad — is cited as one reason for declining sales and the closing of so many retail stores. Of course more people are buying these devices and downloading new titles instead of going to a brick and mortar retail store to buy them. But looking at it from another perspective, are these devices really taking that much of a chunk away from retail book sales? Quite possibly these convenient new devices might inspire more of the masses to pick up the regular reading habit, and in turn some of these neophyte readers might even get curious and buy a few real books with real pages to turn. Who is say you can’t have the best of both worlds?

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