Old book shops keep reading culture alive
Second-hand book shops still survive as sources supplying rare and precious books, which keeps Viet Nam's reading culture viable, Trung Hieu checks out the second-hand book stores.
|Sources of knowledge: Book lovers flip through books at a book exhibition and fair in Ha Noi. Reading culture is still viable, despite being impacted by the internet. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan|
|Hunting: Buyers find books and take notes at Quang Huy second-hand book shop on HCM City's Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street. Second-hand book shops are like libraries along the pavement supplying rare books to book lovers. — VNS Photos Trung Hieu|
For years, book lovers across the nation have visited old book shops in HCM City to hunt for precious and rare books.
The southern city is known as the "centre" for old book shops in the country. The city has an ample number of book collectors and, more importantly, it has a climate that is more favourable for preserving books than the North.
The City's Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Tran Nhan Ton and Tran Huy Lieu streets are known as "book streets", where adjoining shops sell both old and new books. Other streets that have book shops that are home to rare and valuable books that are sold at reasonable prices.
Contrary to what I had imagined before visiting the famous Xua&Nay (Then and Now) book shop on Bach Ma Street, District 10, the store's owner, Tran Thu Nam, was 48, which was much younger than I expected.
"I began to trade books in 1990. But my wife's family has been involved in the business since before the country was reunited [in 1975]," he says.
After he stopped working at the Air Defence and Air Force Technical Department in 1988, Nam decided to temporarily help his wife, Nguyen Thi Kim Que, sell books.
Nam had never considered selling books before.
"Many people bring their old books here to sell, which provides the stock for my store. Sometimes, if people phone me to make an appointment, I go to them to buy books."
Nam says many book collectors left the country in the 1980s to settle abroad, so they had to sell their precious book collections.
From 1990 to 2000, the rare book industry was in its heyday.
|Book worm: Tran Thu Nam searches for books for a client (background). — VNS Photo Trung Hieu|
|Big boss of old books: Phan Trac Canh owns 10 tonnes of old books in his book store in Ha Noi.|
"We didn't have internet at that time and many schools didn't have libraries, but our access to reference books was bountiful, so people who wanted to do research had to visit book shops.
"But the job is not as good as it was in the past," he says. "Historic books have become rare, because many of them are owned by private collectors or have been bought and taken to foreign countries."
In the past decades, because of poverty, many people had to sell their books. Today, as people's living standards improve, many people prefer to keep their books in their family libraries and rarely sell them.
Nam says he only earns a subsistence income now, which is equal to about VND3-4 million (US$205) a month.
"On slow days, I am able to read books from the morning till the evening," he says with a smile.
The job is full of surprises as well. "One day an old man came in and found his old book, which still had his signature on it, that had been lost years ago. He seemed very happy.
"Another day, a poor student came in, and after talking to him, I recognised his love for books, and I gave him the book he liked," he recalls.
Literature student Tran Thien Thuong is a regular client at Nam's shop.
"I often come here to hunt for old reference books for my studies. There are a lot of interesting books in these old stacks," says Thuong, as she sits on her knees searching for books.
Another renown shop for book lovers is Quang Huy on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street.
Its manager, Trinh Thi Van, says the book shop opened in 1980.
Among the stacks, I found many valuable books like Tho van Ly-Tran (Prose and Verse from the Ly and Tran dynasties), and Minh Menh chinh yeu (Records of vital socio-political facts from King Minh Menh's reign).
When someone wants to sell their books, Van goes to their houses to buy them. More importantly, she often buys books at a price that matches their real value.
"Overseas Vietnamese often search for swashbuckling novels, history books, and rare literature that capture their memories of the old days. Many people from Ha Noi travel a long way to get here, and they are often looking for books to assist with their studies.
"All the books have their prices listed on them. We don't charge clients unreasonable prices; we also offer discounts."
This shop has five staff members, and Van says they are as close as family.
Book shops on these streets have strong relationships with each other, and often co-ordinate their efforts to help clients find the books they are looking for, she says.
Not all of the owners of used book shops in HCM City are native to the city.
Nguyen Duc Kinh, who owns the shop at 337 Tran Hung Dao Boulevard, is originally from Binh Dinh Province.
"I used to be a peasant," he says. "My wife and I started selling old books in 2005."
Kinh says he fell into this career by accident. When he first came to the city, he worked as an assistant for a woman who was selling books. Then she moved abroad and Kinh inherited the job.
His shop has two rooms that cover about 30sq.m. The store is full of books about paintings, the arts, literature, history and foreign novels.
"Recently, business has been a little slow. Many books earn a profit of only VND3,000-5,000 each, and my monthly average income is about VND3 million."
Many clients come in the store and look around, but they don't buy anything. Customers often just stand in the shop and read through books, but Kinh never complains.
"Many of these book lovers are researchers and teachers. Some will stand for hours just reading books, but I am happy to have a chance to meet them and I often learn a lot from them."
Many of the old book traders are people who love to read and they have an incredible amount of knowledge. They love collecting valuable books.
Phan Trac Canh, 75, is the owner of a book shop on Bat Dan Street in Ha Noi, who is commonly referred to as the "big boss of old books".
He has preserved about 10 tonnes of old books, which includes rare and precious books that have helped doctoral candidates defend their theses.
Readers just say the name of the book they want, and Canh lets them know if he has it in stock.
The oldest books in his collection include Souvenirs De Hue (Memories of Hue) in French that was published in 1867 and the French-Vietnamese Dictionary written by Truong Vinh Ky that was published in 1884.
Canh owns a few book sets that are worth several thousand US dollars.
At the end of June, he received a letter from a young prisoner in Vinh Phuc Province, who asked Canh to send him several old books that would help him improve his "knowledge and conscience".
"I knew that he respected and loved books, so I carefully selected and presented him seven educational books," Canh says.
"Reading can bring people a special enjoyment. It's different from watching TV or surfing the internet. Today, many young people like collecting books, and many families have established their own libraries. I believe our reading culture will survive and develop," he says.
Although not many people are able to predict the future of the rare book industry, the old book shops are still there like libraries along the pavements.
They are home to many rare and valuable books, which were once famous but have not been re-printed.
At these shops, book collectors can find precious books that are worth millions of dong. But these book shops are also destinations for other readers who are looking for cheap books that suit their taste.
People buy books for many reasons and love books in different ways.
Many people now suggest to their friends: "Let's go to book shops this weekend!" Although the industry has been seriously affected by TV and the internet, the country's reading culture continues to endure.
After the global economic crisis last year, the price of essential commodities, including paper, increased. However, the publishing sector still issued 24,589 titles with 274 million total copies. In 2008, nearly 280 million copies of 25,120 titles were published.
The National Library's deputy director, Phan Kim Dung, says the library receives thousands of students everyday, and during the examination season about 22,000 students pass through the library's doors daily.
Translator Doan Tu Huyen, who is the deputy director of the East-West Culture Centre, says that it's not factual to say that the country's reading culture is degenerating.
"We should conduct a survey on the subject. We need to understand our reading culture. How are people reading, what are people reading and why are people reading?
"Today, because of social changes, people may not read as many books because they go to the cinema, watch cable TV and surf the internet."
Literature critic Ngo Van Gia says the country's reading culture is actually developing.
"Publishing houses issue large volumes of books, and they sell very well. Students now read enthusiastically. Managers and entrepreneurs also pay attention to books and many read carefully.
"Many adolescents only like to read things that are easy to understand. They are afraid to read scientific and subject-oriented books."
A student from the Academy of Journalism and Communication, Thuy Hanh, says too many people read for entertainment because there are a large amount of these types of books, so many youngsters read just to be entertained and not to learn.
"As a result, they have become lazy and are afraid to read classical works and serious books.
"The important thing is to find the best books to read," she says. — VNS