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

Posts tagged ‘Sukhumvit Road’

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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Bangkok Street Scenes

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I almost never take photos when I’m in Bangkok. If I’m on the road, traveling somewhere, well, that’s a different story, but once I’m back home in Bangkok, the urge to get out the camera rarely strikes.

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But I wanted to get some shots recently of the campaign signs of the candidates running for Bangkok governor, and while I was out taking those photos, I decided to snap a few more while I was out and about. These photos are nothing earthshaking, nor anything that’s particularly representative of what Bangkok “is like.” These are just some shots that I took on Sukhumvit Road, near where I work, and on New Petchburi Road (and the adjacent klong), where I live.

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I included several shots of various food vendors, people who play a vital role in making Bangkok such a convenient and livable city. Step outside your door and there is good, inexpensive food available nearly round the clock. But alas, this year has already brought some changes in the food vendor scene, at least from my perspective. My regular fruit vendor on Sukhumvit went back to his home province in late December and still hasn’t returned. He makes frequent trips back to Phitsanulok, so I’m used to not having him around for periods of time (and there is always another fruit vendor to take his place), but he’s never been gone for this long and I’m a bit worried. To compound that concern, one of my favorite noodle vendors, a guy that sells a very tasty concoction across the street from my apartment, hasn’t been around since late November. At this point I’m wondering if he’s going to return or not.

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Meanwhile, the vibrant pulse of the city continues. It’s not a cliche to say that this city never sleeps.

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Bangkok’s Searches & Security

The biggest story — not to mention worry — here in Bangkok recently was the recent Valentine’s Day “bombing” by the so-called Iranian “terrorists”. To call what happened a terrorist bombing, though, may not be quite accurate; it was more like a few small explosions gone awry. Whatever the terminology, it did raise a few eyebrows — and perhaps singe a few in the process. Two weeks later, people are still wondering: was this some sort of Keystone Cops-like mishap or a real threat?

 

In case you missed it, in a nutshell, this is what happened: a couple of Iranian “visitors,” miffed that a Bangkok taxi driver refused to take them to where they asked to go, hurled a grenade — or a similar explosive device — at the taxi. Luckily, the driver was standing outside the taxi at the time and was not injured. His vehicle — as you can see from the photo above — was not so fortunate. Soon afterwards, a police car arrived on the scene (two amazing facts here: the fact that the cop arrived so quickly, and that he was not on a motorcycle, which is what almost all officers are seen driving in Bangkok) and one of the nutty Iranians hurled another grenade at that car too. However, this device ricocheted off the vehicle, hit the Iranian and exploded, blowing off both of his legs. He didn’t die and nobody else was injured, but his buddy was later arrested at the airport, waiting to board a flight to Malaysia — which is where I was when all this lunacy was taking place.

This incident happened in and around Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 71, which is not that far from where I live. In fact, one of my walking routes takes me through the neighborhood where these explosions happened. From newspaper accounts, three Iranian men where living at a rented house in that soi. Some observers think that the “bombs” were intended for the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, or more specifically, the Israeli ambassador. Coming in the wake of similar bomb attacks on “Israeli diplomatic targets” in India and Georgia, this led to all sorts of speculation and accusations, further ramping up the tensions between Iran and Israel … and putting Thailand right in the middle of the nasty feud. This sort of drama is definitely NOT what Thailand needs in order to restore the confidence of tourists after the horrific flooding late last year. What’s next; another massive Red Shirt rally? Actually, that’s a scarily plausible possibility too.

 

After all this bomb-bastic activity, the knee-jerk reaction from authorities has been “heightened security” around the city. In Thai terms, this means squads of police officers making random checks of bags — almost always those of foreigners — at “strategic” spots around town. Every other day it seems there is a photo in the newspaper of some grinning tourist in Bangkok having their bag examined by an equally gleeful police officer. Yeah, baby, having fun in Thailand!

For several years now, there have been regular bag searches on the subway system in Bangkok. But the total lack of thoroughness makes these checks a bit of a joke. As you pass through the electro-gate, a security guard will glance at your bag, maybe shine his or her flashlight in the general direction of the contents inside, and then motion you on. Next, please! I’ve never had one of my bags actually opened and searched. For some reason, the city’s other high-tech transport system, the BTS Skytrain, does not even bother with bag searches at all. We wouldn’t anything resembling consistency here, would we?

But it’s the other type of random bag searches that are a definite source of frustration — and irritation — for expat residents. Previously, these bag checks were ostensibly for the purpose of uncovering narcotics of some sort, but nowadays “security” is given as the reason. I’ve been stopped by police twice in the past decade. The first time I was stopped while walking to the boat pier and my bag was pawed through by an overzealous cop; the other time I was on the back of a motorcycle, stopped at a red light, and interrogated by yet another grim-looking stormtrooper: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Blah, blah, blah. Totally useless.

A few weeks ago there was a letter-to-the-editor in the Bangkok Post from an African-American resident who was recently stopped by police in the Prakonong district of Bangkok and asked to produce his passport. Like most foreign residents, the man sensibly had a photocopy of his passport but not the real thing. That apparently did not satisfy the local copper, no doubt suspecting this guy was an “African drug dealer”, and he ended up taking the American to the local police station for further interrogation. Or was the cop — as so often happens here in this magic kingdom — just looking to have his palmed greased with some cash? Another one of my regular customers, a 40-ish European man, was stopped in front of Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit and asked for ID. Again, there was no reason for this guy being singled out for a search. At what point does “good security” cross over to being nothing but sheer harassment? It definitely takes the shine off Thailand’s sanook façade. Of course there is a need for improved security if the situation warrants it, but searching the bags of random pedestrians doesn’t strike me as anything close to being an effective tactic.

One member of the opposition Democrat party was quoted in the Bangkok Post last week as saying: “Some cabinet members compared the (Iranian bombing) suspect with vocational students engaged in a brawl,” he said. “Don’t make it sound like a trivial matter.” Actually, all these so-called “brawls” among vocational students in the Bangkok ARE a very serious matter. Several times each month there are reports of fights between students from rival schools that end in bloodshed. The perpetrators might be driving motorcycles, they might be riding on a bus with their “gang”, or they might be on foot. Whatever the scene, an argument ensues, knives or guns come out, and someone is either injured badly or killed. These are not rare cases, but alarmingly frequent occurrences of stupidity and intimidation. It may not rank up there with Iranian terrorism suspects in terms of shock value, but it’s certainly not “trivial.” In fact, it’s a big problem that does concern Bangkok residents. Maybe they should be posting these security guards at the entrances of the vocational schools and bus stops.

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