A new chapter

The market in Thailand for rare and antique books is thriving like never before — and it's the Facebook generation who are willing to spend big

Thongchai Likitpornsawan at his Tonchabab Library.

Last month, a 3 tonne load of rare books and magazines from Silpakorn University Central Library were "mistakenly" sold to an old bookshop in Bang Bon district. Some of them were antique books dating back to the reign of King Rama VI, others were old sociological and anthropological journals that can no longer be found anywhere.

We may have long been in the digital age where practically everything is available on-screen at the command of our fingertips, but physical books, especially old books, are still treasured and news of the sell-off triggered a number of academics and book lovers to flock to the shop and drive those tomes away by the carload.

The community for antique books is still alive, and the irony is that its new-found enthusiasm has been aided by the technology that once threatened its existence. Today there are only a few shops specialising in rare books left, with Chatuchak Market a prime spot, but it's Facebook that has become a centre for lovers of torn and moth-eaten rare gems. From the beautiful prose of classic literature, the musty smell, the vintage covers, or just the awe-inspiring presence of it as a collectible, the book-hunting scene is as lively as ever.

"It's not about a trend. It's not fashion. It's love," said Thongchai Likitpornsawan, an expert on old books and owner of Tonchabab Library, which boasts more than 30,000 books and magazines. He's also the founder of a publishing house by the same name. His library, which specialises in history, archaeology and biographies of significant historical figures, is open by appointment for university students to come and research for studies and theses. 

A selection from a massive collection of old and antique books at Tonchabab Library, among them Phra Borihanthaepthani's The Annals Of Thailand series, above right.

"The market is actually thriving," added Thongchai. "There are people who are searching for books and are willing to pay more than 10,000 baht for just one. The only thing that's different now is the marketplace, from Chatuchak Market or Khlong Thom, now it's at the book fair twice a year and mostly online."

For Thongchai, it all started from an accident one day in the late 80s at one old bookshop in Chatuchak Market. From one of the shelves in his book-filled office in his townhouse-turned-library, he took out King Rama V's travelogue on his royal visits to Java.

"This was my first. At the bookstore, I dropped it into a puddle and the owner insisted I had to buy it. It was 1,000 baht and my salary then was only 4,600 baht. I've been collecting books ever since," he said.

Next on that shelf is a complete set of the Royal Thai Government Gazette which is more than 140-years-old. Thongchai bought the first book of the set for about 2,000 baht, now he said it's worth more than 50,000 baht for that book alone.

A visitor at Tonchabab Library.

The beginning of old book collecting in Thailand was around the end of World War II, when the area of Woeng Nakorn Kasem in the old town was the hub.

"People hardly paid attention to books then," explained Thongchai. "They were only things that got carried along when old and magnificent cupboards and shelves were put on sale. People sought after Buddha figures or intricate dish and tea sets."

It was only later that some people started to realise that books can sell too and a roadside stand along Khlong Khu Mueang Doem emerged on weekends. By the late 50s, Sanam Luang Market was established and there were a number of proper bookshops.

"It was a popular place for intellectuals and academics of the day," said Thongchai. "Chit Phumisak was also a frequent visitor. By the beginning of the 80s, the hub was shifted to Chatuchak Market."

At a time when the publishing business ponders its fate in the digital era, with e-books and e-bookstores influencing business practices as well as readers' behaviour, the old book scene has also shifted into a new phase. The passion is essentially the same -- looking for old and rare items -- and technology is now a facilitator.

Thongboon Korkitsunthornsarn, founder of popular online book site Loong Thong, said that the reason why book collecting has become more popular in recent years is simply because they have become rarer and consequently the price for them has gone up considerably as well.

"Those books were published in just a few thousand copies," said Thongboon.

"And they are hard to find these days so the more the new generation wants them the more expensive they have become. Like those novels with beautiful cover designs and drawings, the price for each book has gone up to 400-800 baht. A hardcover copy from the Petch Pra Uma series by Phanom Tian is more than 1,000 baht, and the whole set together is quite a lot of money."

Thongchai explained that those novels with beautiful cover designs and drawings are from the 1930s by writers like Sri Burapha (Songkhram Chiwit, Khang Lang Phap) or Yakob (Phu Chana Sipthit).

Part of Tonchabab Library's massive collection of old and antique books.

"The way it works can be understood quite easily," said Thongchai. "The price for books from the periods of King Rama IV to VII -- annals or national literature which was mostly printed in cremation books of royal figures or noblemen -- has already gone up too far. Collectors of later generations turned to books from later periods, like during the reigns of King Rama VIII and the present monarch. And books from these periods are getting more and more expensive."

Because it's almost impossible to get hold of those books from the King Rama IV or V periods, the new generation, Thongchai explained further, are now turning to books from the periods that are relevant to them, around the time of the 1973 uprising or 1976 massacre.

"Copies of Rong Wongsawan's novels which used to be 5 or 10 baht are now 150 baht. The hardcover copies are more than 1,000 baht," he said.

Phra Borihanthaepthani's The Annals Of Thailand series is among the massive collection of old and antique books at Tonchabab Library.

In the next five to 10 years, Thongboon predicts that the market will slow down as there are less and less books and those available are too expensive.

Thongchai, however, thinks that the market will continue to thrive as there's a new generation who have money to buy them. "I have seen young people who spent hundreds of thousands on these books and post pictures of them online," said Thongchai. "Most of the people from the older generation bought the books as antique collectibles for display in cupboards, cleaning and dusting them just for show. It's up to these people of the new generation to develop what they have and extend the benefits of these assets further." 

Visitor at Tonchabab Library.

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