Myanmar Consolidated Media
Education feature story
60th Anniversary of Indonesia~Myanmar

Rain, restrictions impact booksellers

By Nyein Ei Ei Htwe
Auguet 8 - 14, 2011

Customers browse the stacks at a book stall on Pansoden Street. Pic: Aye Zaw Myo

AT 3pm the sidewalks on the lower block of Pansoden Street and near the cinemas on Bogyoke Road suddenly seem more congested.

The vendors of old books have taken their places on the edge of the concrete walkway, and avid readers converge to search through the books, some of which are stacked on sheets of plastic, while others are displayed more prominently to catch the eyes of potential buyers.

The booksellers, meanwhile, keep one worried eye on the sky, hoping that evening rain does not force them to cover or pack up their merchandise, further shortening their already curtailed selling period.

“We used to sell books all day, but since June 1 new city regulations have prevented us from setting up before 3pm,” said U Mya Thein, 74, who has been selling old books for more than a decade.

“These days the rain tends to come in the evening, so I can’t display all my books for very long,” he said.

U Mya Thein, who sets up on Bogyoke Road near 38th Street, said the new regulations are causing trouble for street-side bookselling businesses, including his own.

“It’s not because of our customers but because of rain and the short selling period,” he said. “We can only start our business after 3pm but when the dark comes, around 6pm, we all pack up our books and close. How can we sell books in just three hours?”

He said many vendors of old books were retired office workers who enjoyed reading and decided to turn their hobby into a source of income.

“Searching for old books isn’t easy, so we help others who share our interest to find books. We don’t get much money, certainly not enough to cover our family expenses, and now it’s even worse because our selling time is so short,” U Mya Thein said.

In addition to selling books, the vendors also spend time searching for old books and making repairs.

“There is not much difference between the price we pay for old books and the price we can get for them after we make repairs. Even though we spend time and money making repairs, we can’t ask high prices because the books are still old,” U Mya Thein said.

He said sellers of new books had it easier.

“Unlike them, we can’t order bestsellers or whole series of books that go together, and we don’t have extra copies of popular books. But I can’t change my life … I’ll never abandon my work because I love old books,” he said.

U Mya Thein’s experiences were echoed by U Tin Oo, 65, who sells old books on the lower block of Pansodan Street.

“I’ve been selling books along this road for more than 30 years, but I never expected to become a rich man. It has given me and my wife some extra income, but now the situation is worse than it’s ever been,” he said.

With the recent sidewalk vendor ban in place, the only way booksellers can stay open all day is by renting a storefront, but this is well beyond the financial means of most vendors of old books.

“In the past we could earn K20,000 a day, but now it’s difficult to get any customers within three hours. Now we mostly get students who want to read cheap novels, which sell for K300 to K5000,” U Tin Oo said.

It doesn’t help that he travels to Pansodan Street every day from his home in Mayangone township, requiring extra money for lunch, bus fare and hired labour to help carry heavy boxes loaded with books.

Lower book sales, and a resulting decrease in funds available to pay for labour, have prompted U Tin Oo to reduce the number of books he displays. He and other booksellers say they feel like they are being punished unfairly.

“We don’t sell obscene or illegal books. Me and the other vendors love books, and we only want to spend our time with them and share with others what we find,” he said.

U Tin Oo said selling old books has expanded his mind, instilling more knowledge through reading and providing evolving insight into what “bookworms” are interested in reading.

“In the past, people read treatises and translated novels, and about 10 years ago books on learning foreign languages — especially Malaysian — were popular. Since the election in November, people have been more interested in history and political books,” he said.

Not all sellers of old books are retired office workers. Ko Zaw Thet Paing is 21 years old, and he’s already been a vendor for six years.

“I’ve thought about leaving this lifestyle, but I love books and I love sharing knowledge. Now I’m accustomed to being a bookseller, and even though I can’t write them I can read them and share them. I don’t want to stop doing this,” he said.

Ko Zaw Thet Paing agreed with U Tin Oo that selling books provided insight into the changing tastes of readers.

“What people read partly depends on business trends and seasonal festivals. Last year Korean-language books sold well, and last month many girls asked about books on traditional Myanmar hairstyles because July 3 was Myanmar Women’s Day. Now, people are interested in books on economics,” he said.

He said that normally the start of monsoon is the best time for vendors because readers buy books to get them through the whole rainy season.

“When it rains, they stay home and read. But his year we didn’t see the normal early monsoon sales boost because of the new rules banning vendors from the street before 3pm,” he said.

All three vendors agreed that selling old books was a global phenomenon that, rather than being a sidewalk hindrance, helped fill the blank for readers looking for books at the cheapest prices.

“We just want a small space where we can sell our books,” Ko Zaw Thet Paing said.