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 used to be an abundance of second-hand book stores. Indeed if you are an old school book lover Nepal might still 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 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 were so many to choose from. Yet since my first visit in 2007 compared to today, there are less. Today there are still plenty of bookstore. But in 2017 there are only a few remaining that sell second hand books.
In Kathmandu the main Thamel area used to have at least seven secondhand bookstores, likewise in the other popular tourist city of Pokhara. Some were good, some were not so good. Some sold new and secondhand books, while other just sold secondhand books. I’ve been to them all. No great feat as they are all within walking distance of each other.
Today there are only dour bookstores in Thamel that sell second hand books. And only one that has a sole owner.
Once you’ve found a book you like in Nepal 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 used to offer an even better incentive to shop with them. They would buy back your old books. Usually at 50% of the original cost. Or, offer you a discount on a new book. Today there are only two that do that.
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 another return to Nepal I revisited Paradise Bookstore in search of a book for myself.
“Have you got ‘Are you Experienced?'” I asked after a quick browse.
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.”
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.
I’ve returned to his little book shop on many occasions.
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 in 2012 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.
I visit Mr. Risal quite often. Business is legitimately not so good these days due to digital devices and tourisms focus on the high-end market (budget to mid-range tourists buy more books apparently). Likewise rent in Thamel has gone up three-fold in 2017.
Still, with all that in mind he knew about the print edition to my guidebook to Nepal and he went out and bought a copy from the wholesaler. I gave him a signed copy for his own keepsake. Much like the photograph I gave him many years ago he smiled widely and was so genuinely appreciative. I do encourage people to visit his small shop, he quite literally is the last second hand book shop in Thamel, Kathmandu.
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.