For the first time in what seems like weeks, but is probably only days, the skies of Bangkok were endlessly blue with a few fluffy clouds drifting lazily southwards. It’s been (for Thailand) a murky, off-grey, smear of a painter’s sky these past days, punctured often by dazzling, angry storms that have washed the streets of any dust. These monsoon-spawned afterthoughts last far beyond their wet deluge, the heat of the rainy season conspiring to evaporate all that water so the city of angels is cloaked in a humidity that a burning mist at times.
Yet, today was different and I found myself drifting along the bottom of the pool, my nose millimetres off the bottom some three metres down, tracking the flickering rainbow jewels of the water in that introverted paradise of warm silence. As I held my breath for a minute or more at a time I could feel the warmth of the sun permeating the water, could faintly hear the calm rushing of my heart in my eardrums. It is precious moments like these that the introvert craves because you can just…be.
In these moment decisions are made and I hauled myself out of the pool, waterfalls running from me, grabbed a towel and headed upstairs to jump on my bicycle and go find a bookshop/cafe. After all, I had been browsing online in recent days for such places, keen to understand where the bibliophiles really go and I don’t mean – without wishing to denigrate those patrons – the nonsense of Starbucks “workers” who slum with a book or laptop for hours on end at the price of a single latte, emerging with little to show for their creative muse other than a Starbucks receipt. That’s harsh…I know. I guess “if you’re going to paint with a wide brush make sure it’s a roller”, as my dearly departed mother would opine. Anyway, I plumped for Books@53, a place on Sukhumvit Soi 53, just past Thong Lo BTS which is described as:
This low-rise bookshop and café offers English-language paperbacks, imported art magazines and non-fiction, along with some Thai titles. The highlight is an extensive children’s books section—bedtime stories, pop-up books, exercise books, scrapbooks, etc. Take your pick. Also available are books covering obscure subjects ranging from alternative medicine to military aviation. When you’ve found your dream book, drop by the attached café or go out for fresh air (or a cigarette, you arty poser) outside.
Off I cycled, arrowing through the endless lanes of Bangkok traffic jams, with a joyous aplomb. It’s a bit like playing Pac-Man; you dice with the mopeds for the best lanes to get through; a bike is an asset as it’s narrower than the mopeds; you get a glow of satisfaction from picking the choice route to the next lights, groan when you’re plucked like a soft harp by a grinning Thai lad who knows the game as much as you. I did hear one bang as someone hit someone, but it’s a clear game of winner takes all, no point in stopping to hear the harangues of a taxi driver who has rear-ended someone.
I arrived at my destination to find it did not look like this but rather was a construction site telling me they were reopening in early 2014. Somehow my Googling had missed this: http://www.nibondhbooks.com/book53.html.
What to do? I mused forlornly as I watched the huge concrete mixer truck trying to reverse up a two foot verge.
A trifle dejectedly, I cycled back down Soi 53 and ran the gamut of oncoming traffic to get on the other side of Sukhumvit to pedal home. As I did I remembered the very first outing I had with Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist. He’d taken to me to a place that Bangkok Guides and other blogs call “Bangkok’s Finest Second Hand Bookshop”, more commonly known as Dasa Books. Being brutally honest, it’s not that good if you are used to wandering the narrow lanes of places like Hay-on-Wye, but for Bangkok – which isn’t known for its literary aspersions despite being International Book Capital of the Year 2013; you need to head to Chiang Mai if you want that kind of thing – it’s very good. I parked up outside (it’s between Soi 28 and 26, just west of BTS Phrom Phong) and ventured inside. I was the only person there, bar two literary baristas: one a Westerner, the other Asian (but not Thai). Their pores oozed peaceful solemnity.
I have to say that there’s always a sense of reverence when I step into a bookshop or library – even Barnes & Noble – that is almost transcendental. It is as though the door jamb becomes a threshold, a portal if you will, to another place; like entering a spiritual building, there is a sense of hush, a feeling between the shoulder blades of the weights of both intellect and respect. Yeah, I know, sounds like I need to get over myself; but I am merely seeking to give an impression of how these places make me feel. Imagine, if you will, the one place that inspires you in whatever it is you crave; a bookshop has the same impact for me. Probably because I am an introvert.
In front of me was a small concession to the cafe claim, a single round table reflecting that everyone was equal, three chairs, a small serviette dispenser. A kettle and a drinks fridge were the nod to libation, the rest of the walls and floor were given over to books, all arranged by topic – fiction, language, biography; going to the back and climbing a right angled tight staircase the first floor was wallpapered in floor-to-ceiling dark book cases, the odd gap filled with a lurid green paint. Up here was “Chick-Lit”, Thrillers, History, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Mystery, Children’s. A floor above was more like an attic, a smattering of foreign-language books – almost an apologetic presentation. These books are the spices in the back of Michael McIntyre’s cupboard.
Here are some photos…
…as I peered at books, there was added pleasure in seeing those I had read as a child, seeing the old style publisher jackets, a half-smile memory at authors I’d not seen in two decades. Dasa itself relies heavily on buying in second hand books and reselling them on for a marginal profit. It’s a place that isn’t really interested in corporate bedazzlement, just in ensuring books are cycled over and over rather than lobbed into a trash can or used to prop up a table. If I was going to get deeply philosophical about it, then I might venture that, as the likes of Amazon would have us believe, the Internet “quote” – ‘a room without books, as a body without a soul’ (which is attributed to Cicero: pure hokum, likely a plagiarized re-hash of the more accurate ‘postea vero quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit mens addita videtur meis aedibus.’) is made real in places like Dasa that understand this idiom and quietly seek to redress the balance of Bangkok’s noise with a tiny corner full of solitude and, subsequently, Ciceronian soul.
If I was going to get deeply philosophical about it, of course…
Anyway, I didn’t get to Books@53 – it looks like that will be a 2014 blog – but Dasa books is well worth stopping in; not just to buy, but also sell if you’ve a need to clear your shelves. It’s a tiny book paradise proudly clinging on in the burgeoning consumerism of this city.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?