Our Book Culture’s Bright Future

 |  May 1, 2017

Walking into Chiang Mai’s oldest bookshop, Suriwong Book Centre, on Sridonchai Road, you’ll find a spacious, modern building, brightly lit and filled with rows upon rows of books and stationery. Suriwong Book Centre has come a long way from its beginnings; what began in 1955 as a small bookshop in the basement of the Suriwong Cinema, it has now become one of the largest bookstores in Chiang Mai. Trasvin Jittidecharak, publisher of Silkworm Press whose mother founded Suriwong, recalls her early years in her family’s shop: “Growing up in a bookstore was a blessing. Have you ever read The Neverending Story by Michael Ende? It’s that experience. It’s a place to find an answer. It used to be the place you go to satisfy your curiosity. Now, information is at your fingertips. Groceries will be delivered by drones. You would wonder whether a bookstore has any role in our lives at all, but isn’t Amazon just bringing back brick-and-mortar bookstores? Who knows?”

Trasvin question feels more relevant now than ever. Is there still room for bookstores within today’s tablet and screen-crazed world? Are bookstores in Chiang Mai continuing to open in a market so threatened by the rise of e-books, the pull of Instagram and Facebook scrolling, and the almighty Internet? And in a country whose reading culture is so often shrugged off as nonexistent, are people reading more, or less than before? And now, with massive Asia Books expanding its operations in Chiang Mai, is there room left for other retailers to do business? Against the odds, it seems that the answer is a resounding yes. While the market is difficult, and traditional libraries are losing visitors, a newer group of bookshops and library cafes with a distinctly younger feel suggest that Chiang Mai’s book scene is evolving, looking to appeal to a new generation of readers, and tentatively thriving.

Niche & Independent
In spite of Asia Books’ broadening presence in Chiang Mai, smaller independent bookstores have carved out spaces for themselves within the city’s book market. Among the city’s independent shops, Nimmanhaemin’s Ranlao Bookshop stands out as one of the oldest. Founded in 2000, the bookshop has been serving clients for seventeen years, and you can sense this from the second you walk inside. It feels like your quintessential neighbourhood bookstore; cozy, warm and inviting. Books are carefully laid out beside artfully-crafted notebooks, postcards, and more. The shop also hosts various book talks every few months. Krongthong Sudprasert, or Ja, one of the shop’s co-owners, explains that her shop is more focused on nonfiction and fiction literature, from Thai and international writers alike. Ja doesn’t view other small bookstores as competition: “They have different books than we do, so different people come here.” She also says that business has been steadily growing and improving since she opened her store in 2000. Slowly, but steadily.

The Booksmith

Just across the street from Ranlao Bookshop, you’ll find The Booksmith, which founder and owner Sirote Jiraprayoon describes as an “independent art and design bookstore.” After having worked in the book industry for ten years, one day Sirote was in Chiang Mai and happened to walk by an empty rental space on Nimmanhaemin. He inquired about the price, and decided to open a bookshop there. “I saw the space, and I decided to go for it.” The shop, which opened in October of 2012, has been so successful that it has now grown into a chain. The Nimmanhaemin branch is The Booksmith’s flagship location, which specialises in art and design books; Sirote’s own field of expertise within the book industry. He has since opened two branches in Chiang Mai International Airport and a branch in Central Festival offering more young adult fiction books. Booksmith has also opened two outposts in Bangkok.

Sirote views his bookstore as a unique shop within Chiang Mai, which was a very intentional part of his business plan. “We tried to position ourselves not like an ordinary bookshop. We are kind of worried about the influence of the e-books that have most impact in the fiction and nonfiction categories, so we are trying to avoid that trade and go for other categories, specifically art and design.” As a result, The Booksmith began to offer copies of smaller, independent publications, becoming the first Thai distributor to import magazines such as Kinfolk. With its sleek design, chic stationery, posters of vintage book covers and cool atmosphere, The Booksmith is most definitely trendy enough for millennials’ Instagram feeds.

Sirote’s strategy has been successful, so far. The Booksmith has experienced continuous growth since its first opening, and the Nimman store’s revenue has had about an 11% growth each year. The airport branches are doing quite well, too, reaching as much as 17% growth in some years. Kaweewut Wuttiwipoo, owner of secondhand shop Gekko Books (Chiang Mai), and Dasa Books (Bangkok), agrees: “That’s how you can survive in the market, find your strength and stock titles that are different than other shops. More Thai bookstores are using that strategy. Smaller, but more specific, and catered to a smaller market instead of trying to be one-stop-service kind of bookstores.” Yet both Ranlao and The Booksmith draw much of their clientele from Thai tourists, and less from Chiang Mai locals. According to Sirote, 90% of his Nimman clients are Thai tourists from other provinces, many from Bangkok. The rest are mostly foreigners.

Sirote notes that running a bookshop in Chiang Mai does have its own unique set of challenges: “I think the book business in Chiang Mai is growing, but Chiang Mai is a challenging market, because it’s six months high season, six months low season. But from November to Songkran, our business in total could be better than the last 12 months. So this is the most difficult thing with Chiang Mai.”
A Mixed Secondhand Book Bag
Ten years ago there were almost fifteen secondhand bookshops in Chiang Mai, today only a handful remains, most of which are concentrated around Tha Pae Gate: Shaman Books, Gekko Books, The Lost Bookshop, Backstreet Books, On The Road Books. It would seem that the market for secondhand books in Chiang Mai has been shrinking. Rent is also rising, which has forced several bookshops to switch locations in recent years.

Stepping into On the Road Books, which opened in 1999, one might begin to believe that this is the case. Kai, the owner’s daughter, explained that business has been difficult lately, this past year in particular: the store is often very quiet, and not as many people even walk in to browse anymore. When I paid them a visit in early April, they had sold just fourteen books over a morning and much of the afternoon. On a busy day during high season, they can sell about thirty, she told me. This is surprising given the store’s location, which is right next to the UN Irish Pub and a minute’s walk away from Zoe in Yellow Bar; basically prime farang territory.

Gekko Books

On the other hand, some secondhand shops seem to be thriving. The Lost Bookshop, which opened in 1990, is one of the city’s biggest and busiest secondhand shops. Run by George O’Brien, the shop took off when O’Brien himself shipped 4,000 of his own books to Chiang Mai all the way from his home in Ireland. Today, it boasts two multi-room stories brimming with books from floor to ceiling, all neatly categorised by genre and language. O’Brien also runs Backstreet Books, which opened about seventeen years ago, but says that The Lost Bookshop has much more business, likely because of its central location. In fact, the store’s business last year was better than ever; it has been doing even better than ten years ago, during what O’Brien described as the “prime” of secondhand books in Chiang Mai.

When asked why he thought this might be the case, O’Brien happily exclaimed, “I think books are cool again!” Kindles, on the other hand, he feels are going out of style. Kaweewut Wuttiwipoo, owner of Gekko Books, joins him in this opinion: “I’m pretty optimistic about physical media. Some people in Bangkok come to the bookshop and give us their e-readers; they don’t want to keep them anymore, they want to get back to real books. Maybe they like the feeling of flipping pages instead of ‘tap and swipe’. It’s good if you’re travelling, but otherwise – go to the bookshop and browse, meet interesting people.”

Kaweewut has been running Gekko for about a year. For him, this is not about fast money, but rather investing in becoming a longstanding business here. And so far, he is doing fairly well: “In terms of profit for the first year I’d say we were successful in terms of expectation, but it’s going to be a long term business project.”

In spite of these tentative success stories, there are no signs that there will be any new secondhand bookshops opening in the near future. So, the next question is, what is the state of the city’s libraries, an institution that is increasingly forgotten in this day and age?

Suriwong Book Centre

Public Libraries: Relics of the Past?
Our first stop: The Chiang Mai Nonformal and Informal Education Library on Huay Kaew Road first opened forty years ago. Before its existence, a small lending library with only a few books operated within Wat Phan On. The library has over 10,000 books. Most of the collection is in Thai, but they do carry a few English, Chinese, and Japanese language books, all privately donated.

Wachiraporn Jumrut, a librarian who has worked at the library for thirteen years, told us things have changed a lot in her time at the library. When she started there, she used to see about 200 to 300 people coming in each day. Now, that number is around 100 to 150; basically half of what it once was. She believes that this is a direct result of the rise in consumption of electronic media and content on the internet. And while people do still come in to borrow books, the numbers have changed significantly: while it was normal to have over 100 books borrowed in a day, now that number is closer to 60. She also notes, disapprovingly, that many people come to the library just to sit in the air conditioning and use the free Wi-Fi. She gestures to those sitting close by; every single library guest is either looking at a phone, computer, or tablet.

Surprisingly, when asked if she is worried about the future of libraries in Chiang Mai, Wachiraporn immediately shakes her head. For the past five years, she explains, the library has been operating a programme in each district of Chiang Mai that essentially brings the library directly to the people. Library volunteers, many of whom are students or retired adults, are each armed with ten bags of books, with approximately 20 books per bag, to take to various districts. There are approximately ten volunteers per district, who bring library books to various parts of the province, allowing local readers to borrow books directly from them, rather than having to go all the way to the library on their own. The programme has been fairly successful so far, and has garnered interest from many families, who can borrow up to five books per household at a time. Wachiraporn tells us that the government is working hard to get people reading, and absolutely wants to keep libraries’ doors open. And even more than that, it is trying to reach people in new ways: “the government wants to open small libraries inside markets.” There is one already open in Hang Dong, which has been operating successfully, and another one in Fa Ham will open in about six months. The government hopes to make books, particularly free books, far more visible and easily accessible to Chiang Mai residents, and to therefore encourage reading and boost Thai readership as a whole.

Libraries for a New Generation
The Department of Nonformal and Informal Education is not the only one to have noticed that public libraries are diminishing in popularity. Tucked away on a quiet street behind Kad Suan Kaew lies Bulbul Book Cafe. At first glance, it’s hard to understand where the ‘Book’ part of its name comes from: it seems like a standard coffee shop. Yet, adjacent to the seating area is a small room carefully stocked with shelves of art and design books, with numerous titles on photography, book design, languages, and more. Vajira Ruthirakanok, director of the graphic design company Rabbithood Studio, co-owns Bulbul Book Cafe, and is trying to change the way people relate to books by offering a new kind of space, working to reshape how we view the concept of a library. He explains why: “The government libraries are boring. Like university libraries, you have too many rules! This is the era of service design. We should be user-centric. When you don’t change yourself and just keep complaining, ‘oh they don’t read, they don’t read,’ maybe it’s because you’ve never changed! You have so many rules. For example, you have to dress properly to go into the library. Why? I think the atmosphere is the key of the library. We try to make our library different from others in this country. When you go to the library, you have to be quiet, silent, you have to dress properly, be a member, show your ID…For me, it’s too complicated. I used to go, but not anymore.”

At Bulbul, it’s simple. “There’s no process at all. You just come in, order our drinks, and read whatever you want to read, and you can stay here as long as you want. No minimum charge, you can sit here the whole day.” Patrons cannot borrow books to take them home, as most of the books at Bulbul are fairly expensive art books, but they can read them and browse them without limit at the cafe. The cafe also hosts ‘Bulbul Talks’, public events with speakers such as designers and artists from around Thailand. The cafe organises these events for the general public free of charge; the only minimum is a drink order at the cafe. Previous event topics include the intersection of reading and design, book cover art, and more.

The cafe is one of Chiang Mai’s newest additions to the book scene: they opened in July last year. The spacious library-coffee shop space was born from his design team’s own personal book collection: “We collected many design books, because I had no knowledge about design, so I had to study from the books. […] We thought, we better share our books with others.”

What’s exciting is that Bulbul is not alone in this movement to revolutionise the way we interact with books. In June 2014, Nutthaphong Niamnud left his job in Bangkok to open Mahasamut Library in Baan Kang Wat, a lifelong dream. Nutthaphong remembers spending hours in bookshops when he was younger, reading titles that he could not afford to purchase in stores themselves. The small space, lined with wooden shelves brimming with Thai paperbacks, is laid back, “a place for someone who wants to read, relax,” he says. He has always wanted to open a library, to create a space in which people can simply come in and borrow books as they please, with a purchase from the cafe.

While many other bookshop owners, like Sirote Jiraprayoon of The Booksmith, believe that social media is one of the main reasons that Thai people don’t read very much – as it means consuming written content other than books – Nutthaphong actually thinks that social media is a great tool for reaching clients and new readers, to get them into libraries and bookshops. Many of his clients don’t necessarily read very much when they come to his cafe, and often come to sit, drink coffee, and take pictures. But Nutthaphong believes that even having someone open a book and read a page, or take photos of the books is a step in the right direction. He hopes to be able to encourage reading slowly, and to “make new readers” by simply connecting daily life to books. He feels, like the owner of Bulbul Book Cafe, that more and more people are reading, coming to his library. He says with a smile: “This is my dream, and it came true. I’m so lucky.”