Possibly the nicest bookseller in the world

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ April 23rd, 2012. Updated on July 19th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
Mr. Surendra Singh Risal from Paradise Book Shop in Kathmandu Nepal

Mr. Surendra Singh Risal from Paradise Book Shop in Kathmandu Nepal

Secondhand bookshops in Nepal

I adore secondhand bookshops. They are a treasure trove of unknown discoveries. Usually they are located in cramped rooms filled up to the ceiling with shelves of not so shiny books.

Inhale deeply when you enter a good secondhand book store and the scent you experience is nearly as good as that of opening a book for the first time, putting its pages to your nose and inhaling.

Nepal is one of the few countries I’ve traveled where there is an abundance of second-hand book stores. Indeed if you are an old school book lover Nepal might be your Shangri-La.

Bookstores are slowly disappearing from the world

I don’t have that much of a problem in finding new bookstores when traveling in big cities. The problem I have is that the selections are always rather limited and always new. Over the years I’ve seen the travel fiction section shrink into a generic list of brightly colored spines.

Bill Bryson, Rick Steeves, an assortment of Lonely Planet to do lists, 1001 things to do, a few mid-life crises / traveled to find myself adventures … and a small selection of unknowns are the usual fare.

If you are very lucky there might be a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If you are unlucky there will be a batch of Hollywood travel movie related paperbacks.

I go to the unknowns. Flick through them. Possibly see a not so cookie cutter produced book by a large publishing house and think about buying it. Then I turnover the book and shudder at the price. Placing the book back I wonder if I should buy a kindle?

The thought of locating a secondhand bookstore in a city you’ve just arrived in these days is nearly as daunting as writing a book oneself. Easier to think of it being easy than actually accomplishing the task at hand.

Will kindles & tablets kill the bookstore? Or are they a product of our evolution?

Yes the high-street bookstore’s days are numbered in their current form. I think it’s only a couple of generations that are used to, and enjoy, paperback books that are

A stack of books

In Paradise Book Shop the books are wrapped in covers to protect them. Collectors items already …

keeping them open. For the next few generations there will still be people who prefer paper over electronic books. But the numbers will eventually add up. The cost of printing books for fewer buyers will increase print book prices. Fewer people will buy.

More people are and will move to the electronic form of book.

Have you ever seen a child with an iPad? It’s intuitive to them and far more engaging than a paper based book.

Children today are growing up with tablet PC’s and touch screens that produce interactive reading experiences. It’s becoming a part of our education system. It’s only a matter of time before one day a person will say:

“I’ve never read a paper book”.

Yes, electronic books are the future whether we like it or not.

Let’s just be grateful the format of a book has not yet changed to match the short attention spans of the Facebook and Twitter generations.

Secondhand bookstores will make a comeback

They might become known as collectors shops. But secondhand physical bookstores will probably outlast new brick and mortar bookstores. They will become a place to purchase rare and valuable old books. They will be a place to go and experience the past world. And, if you are wealthy enough a place to purchase an old school read.

Finding a good secondhand book store in Nepal

There are many to choose from. Yet since my first visit in 2007 compared to today, there are less.

In Kathmandu the main Thamel area has at least seven secondhand bookstores, likewise in the other popular tourist city of Pokhara. Some are good, some are not so good.  Some sell new and secondhand books, while some just sell secondhand books. I’ve been to them all.  No great feat as they are all within walking distance of each other.

Once you’ve found a book the usual thing to do is bargain for for it. Don’t worry, it’s less stressful than the usual trinket bargaining. If the price says 200rps offer 100rps. If it’s a good bookstore you’ll walkout not having paid 200rps. Sadly, even this tradition is disappearing as many bookstores are now fixing their prices. Easier to buy, but not as memorable. Kind of like buying an electronic book I guess. An easy process to do, and an easy one to forget.

The thing is: buying a secondhand book is not just about a purchase. It’s about the experience too.

The older secondhand bookstores offer an even better incentives to shop with them. They will buy back your old books. Usually at 50% of the original cost. Or, offer you a discount on a new book.

I usually buy two books, read them, and then trade them in for another one for free.

My experience with Paradise Book Shop in Kathmandu

Back in 2007 I discovered Paradise Book Shop. It was run by a frizzy bearded man with a smile. I remember buying Shantaram from him as a gift to someone in Nepal. I remembered him jumping up and locating the book very quickly. I noted he was hard of hearing.

On my recent return to Nepal I revisited Paradise Bookstore in search of another book for myself.

“Have you got ‘Are you Experienced?’” I asked after a quick browse.

Paradise Book Shop, Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal

Paradise Book Shop, Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal

The same wide-eyed man with a kind smile and slightly whiter frizzy beard looked up at me. He then handed me a small notebook and pencil. “Write down the name of the book and author. Please.”

I did. Are You Experienced by William Sutcliffe.

What happened next was a testament to a true book lover. The man got up from his chair and placed one finger to his chin while looking at several shelves. Then with a youthful spring he moved to one shelf, ran his finger across it and pulled out the book. He handed it to me with both hands.

It was like watching a human cataloging machine at work. This man knew where every book was in his store by heart.

Getting to know Mr. Surendra Singh Risal from Paradise Book Shop in Kathmandu

Mr. Risal is actually deaf. Or at least extremely hard of hearing yet it’s of no obvious obstacle to him. He sits in a small square, three walled store called Paradise Book Shop which he rents. It’s on the main Thamel road. To the right if you are walking down the hill.

He doesn’t own the name of the store nor the shop itself but he’s been renting both for several years. And like most people in Kathmandu he will say business is poor.

I can’t help but think of the people at my guesthouse on electronic book readers and wonder what lies in this mans future. He’s an intelligent man and I wonder if he knows this too? This makes me a little sad.

Mr. Singh also sells a small selection of old war medals, coins and stamps from the bookshop. This is quite a popular pastime in Nepal. However my interest is in books and that’s what I enjoy most about his shop. Mr. Singh, I’m guessing, has probably read all the books in this store as he’s very knowledgeable about each one if you ask him for his opinion on one.

When I go there I bring my old books to trade in and a handwritten list of books I’m interested in reading. If they are not in stock then Mr. Risal will visit other bookstores after he closes his shop and look for them. If he finds them he’ll then keep the books behind his desk for a day or two waiting for their new owner to come for them.

That’s the kind of service you can’t get in many places these days.

Everyone has a favorite bookstore

Paradise Book Shop is my favorite bookstore. I asked to take Mr.Risal’s photograph for the purpose of writing about him. He’s a rare find. Shy and embarrassed with the idea of a photograph he agreed. I returned a few days later with a printout of the photograph.

His hands hovered around it with delight and he smiled so widely it just told me that this was a good thing.

If you happen to be in Nepal, enjoy secondhand bookstores or are looking for a good read I would encourage you to visit Mr. Risal’s Paradise Book Shop. Write down the book you are looking for and watch him spring into action to locate it. If not in stock then he’ll do his best to find it for you. At the very least you will experience customer care that you can only find in the very best of secondhand book stores.

Paradise Book Shop, Thamel, Kathmandu. I’m not sure if he just uses it for text messages or asks a neighbouring shop to take the call but there’s a telephone number too: 4242131. Best to go and visit the bookstore in person! 

This is an additional feature article about secondhand books and in particular paradise book shop because they just don’t make them like this anymore.

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19 Great responses to Possibly the nicest bookseller in the world

  1. Barbara says:

    Beautiful writing! This post makes me realize that I need to travel further East.

    About twenty five years ago, Poland had an “antiquariat” on every single corner. In the meantime, they all went out of business. Here in California nowadays, it’s hard to find any brick and mortar bookstores, just as you say…

    Of course, thanks to the changing ways people read, it’s also why you are able to write this blog rather than be forced to read a handful of available newspapers written by “experts” and why in the 1970′s an author could sell 2 million copies (today 300,000 is high) because the publishing houses made sure the number of authors were low and the selections were small enough that people bought the same book.

    More reading available on-line. People reading more than ever before world-wide… and yet… where are our treasure troves? Our used bookstores where we can have a sensory book experience?

    Answer: Aaaaaah, Nepal.

    • Thanks for the kind words and excellent insight into the world of reading/publishing today.

      It’ll be interesting to see how long the bookstores survive here in Nepal. I have a feeling it will be a while before they vanish. The internet is appearing everywhere here now. The only part that’s hampering the digital destruction of the bookstores is the serious lack of electricity in Nepal. There’s no solution there either. So my bet is the bookstores will fight on until Nepal can attain a regular power supply.

      • Unlike advanced countries, its unlikely that this thing will vanish anytime soon. Its not that people have left buying books elsewhere or all the books have gone digital. With only 7-9% of total population gone online (yes 7-9%), less than 50% literacy rate, and no major changes in education system as well as library cataloging, I doubt this thing will change soon. Electricity is really a big hamper as you said but its not hampering less here to the one using the Internet. (There is a reason why?) .. People are using mobile devices more and and have themselves applied some sort of solution to electricity via inverters and batteries. Students and families still don’t have much good earning to spend on expensive books and you can see at RNAC, Ratnapark, Tudikhel people craving for second hand books being sold on the footpath and walls.

  2. Petr says:

    Wow, what a refreshing reading! I love everything about this entry, the initial picture with Mr. Surendra Singh Risal in his neat bookshop, the content, the style, the pace… You really have a talent to bring out the atmosphere. Reading the article I am feeling like I was standing in the shop myself.
    However I have acknowledged changes in the readers’ preferences and the book market in general, it didn’t fully occur to me how fast the pace of these changes really is.
    Whatever the future of book reading is, your article manages to bring up the sentiment for the good old paper books which have been with us for quite a few centuries. Hope I will still be able to afford a good paper book in for some more time in the future…

  3. Sandra Foyt says:

    Way back in 1990, I don’t think there were many book stores in Kathmandu. And yet, I managed to get lost in one, when I was supposed to be headed to an airport. Almost missed my flight, but even if I had, it would have been worth it. As long as there are those of us who are passionate about books, there will always be a market for book stores.

    • I sat down with man last week who’s been coming to Nepal for decades, and his parents before him. He had old photograph printouts of Kathmandu. It would be fabulous to compare then and now in terms of your 1990 observations.

      So long as there’s no regular electricity in Nepal, and the tourists keep coming there will be bookstores!

  4. Janice says:

    Yet another great post! I adored soaking myself in kathmandu bookstores – jumping from one bookstore to another. I must have visited Paradise book shop, just couldn’t remember which one. Will take note!

    Lastly on going digital, we can’t stop coming from coming. I personally will continue to stick with holding a physical book for as long as i can. Nothing comes close to the smell of a book or flipping a book! :)

  5. Liv says:

    I would love to visit The Paradise Book shop. I like to be looking around in a book store for used books. You can find many nice books. Old ones, new ones, interesting ones and of course a lot of not so interesting stuff.. I am also very lucky to have one of these nice book stores right on the corner from where I live. Somehow used books appeal more to me than new books. May be it is the thought that someone has enjoyed and read the book before and now it is on the way to a new owner to be enjoyed again. I think paper books will never die because of the lovely sight and feeling to have your home filled with them. It is like old friends. To read an e-book can be ok, and Kindle is nice on holidays, but can never beat a paper book.

  6. Jesse says:

    I also have this one great experience with second hand books. I find one rare old stamp that actually cost a fortune on antique collection auctions. You’ll never know what you’ll learn from old books. Even you dad’s note how they adopted you. xD

  7. Michael says:

    Great post. I enjoy anything to do where real books are being supported.

  8. geoff says:

    hi dave, this is so funny. I came across your blog from twitter @commigo. I just got back from Nepal :) I had a great bookstore experience in Pokhara actually. This is awesome. Sorry I haven’t read much about your site or you, but do you live there in Nepal. I found Kathmandu to be majorly overwhelming. The people were incredible though. I miss that part of it there. Anyway, have a momo on me :)

    peace.

    geoff

  9. Very lovely post! I think technology will squeeze a lot of people out of their livelihood and w/ the developing countries, one can only hope they continue to stay a bit behind. Like India, everything is done manually which constantly astounds me. If technology were to ever come in, the entire country would be out of work.

    Alternately, I don’t think books will ever go away entirely (even tho we prob have one major bookstore left in Hawaii! ONE)

    In Dharamsala, some yoga friends found some books in a second hand store that were actually quite valuable! Never know what you’ll find.

    • I can’t believe there’s only one bookstore left in Hawaii! Is everybody buying online now?

      The great/not so great thing about Nepal as you mentioned, is that there’s a real shortage of electricity throughout most of the year meaning technology is having a hard time moving in quickly. It will, it’s just going to take longer.

  10. Eman says:

    I totally agree with you. Paradise book shop is my favourite as well. Before he shifted his book shop with a new name in Thamel, Mr. Risal owned a small second hand book shop in Jhochhen area in Basantapur. When I first saw him, he reminded me of Rajneesh Osho. So, since that day I call him Osho bajey and his book shop is Osho bajey’s bookshop for me. He’s a very nice person, he doesn’t speak much but he smiles a warm smile. Thank you for posting about him and the bookshop. :)

  11. … and this is one of the best article I stumbled upon after a long time. Greetings from Nepal Dave.

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