In the good books

Thailand's independent bookstores have shown a remarkable resilience in the face of the rising popularity of digital media

People crowd around a booth at a book fair held in Bangkok.  (Photo by PATTANAPONG HIRUNARD)

A former Amazon employee once said that the traditional book market was "an absurdly inefficient model, worse than my uncle sending his laundry home from college".

Amazon grew from a stereotypical garage business led by a Kool-Aid-drinking skinny kid to the largest book retailer in the world. On its way to the top, Jeffrey Bezos wiped out the market shares of Barnes and Noble, Walmart and hundreds of other national and international book retailers.

Kinokuniya and other large booksellers like Se-Ed, Nai-In and B2S have been scrambling to adapt to digital media, with some shifting the bulk of their business online, others closing down locations to keep the heads above water.

Even Dokya, the first country-wide bookstore chain, has turned its business around and become a publishing house as vintage bookstores were simply out of sync with their customers' lower disposable income and changing media consumption preferences.

The entry of Amazon and other e-book providers into the market has given consumers unlimited choice. But as Brad Stone, an American journalist who has been covering Silicon Valley for over two decades, said: "In a world where consumers have unlimited choice, you need to compete for attention. And this requires something more than selling other people's products."

This is precisely what independent booksellers provide, and they have fared amid market forces well. Independent bookstores are not dead. In contrast to their more commercial counterparts, they provide readers with warm, knowledgeable staff -- some with a lifetime of experience in the book racks. While these bookstores cannot emulate the convenience of Amazon, they provide readers with an experience and a community of readers that a six-inch screen just cannot match.

Charun Hormtienthong, president of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (Pubat), puts is concisely: "The value of the independent bookstores lies in its meticulous decoration, and its extensive and expertly curated inventory. Independent bookstores can also offer customers unique places to sip a coffee while browsing through shelves, or comfortable nooks to read in throughout the day."

A sluggish economy and the rise of digital media have only had a slight effect on independent bookstores. While these bookstores still trail behind big market players in terms of numbers, they have become an increasingly common sight in the country.

According to Pubat, there are more than 50 independent bookstores in Thailand, including Candide Books, Soonthornphu Bookshop, Zombie Books and Bookthopia.

In contrast to big chains they can select books to cater to customers. "Revenue is low at big bookstore chains because the bulk of books in their catalogue don't match people's needs. Independent bookstore owners with years of experience can take the time to select their own catalogues."

According to Duangruethai Asanachatang, the owner of Candide Books, the difference is especially notable in novels, some of which Candide procures directly from authors. Although Candide started selling online two years ago, Ms Duangruethai, who is prone to literary outbursts, says it will not branch out and will instead retain its one-of-a-kind existence.

Independent bookstores are more also adept at targeting novel lovers, who can comfortably share their thoughts about books with store owners.

"Big bookstore chains, in contrast, only offer a grab-and-go experience," says Mr Charun.

Another advantage that independent bookstores have over their competitors is that their locations tend to blend in with local communities, which makes it easier to expand their "book-loving fan base", says Ms Duangruethai.

Zombie Books is the perfect example of a store that provides a unique experience and a unique selection. Its first floor is filled with Thai novels, the second floor has second-hand English novels and reading tables, the third floor has live music and drinks, and the fourth is packed with ping-pong and other sports.

Kornkrit Phorn-Intra, assistant manager at Zombie Books, says Thailand is not facing a "dark age of bookstores".

Mr Charun says that while independent bookstores have not yet been crushed by competition they still need support to survive. According to Pubat, to bookstore owners the two most essential components in their success is a network sharing of expertise, and the proliferation of physical locations.

"In order to survive the book industry needs bookstores, whether these come in the form of independent or chain bookstores. Making sure retail locations are widely available is one of Pubat's main missions," says Ruangdej Chandergiri, owner of Rahadsa Cadi and an independent candidate for Pubat.

Pubat wants to expand the industry's customer base by increasing the number of independent bookstore locations across the country to more than 100.

The 5th Thai Independent Booksellers Week, to be held from June 24 to July 2, has been coordinated to promote strong countrywide networking among bookstore owners. The conference will be attended by 18 independent booksellers and Pubat.

"That the conference was organised by the independent bookstore owners is a sign of growing in the sector," says Mr Ruangdej. The event will also seek to promote reading among the young -- starting with selected novels from independent bookstores.

While big chains have struggled to keep up in a digital environment, independent bookstores aim to cater to a small but loyal group of serious book lovers. Apparently, there are still those who prefer to leaf through Murakami in quaint environment.

For them, as Mr Ruangdej says: "Physical books are still charismatic and worth collecting".

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