Clos­ing the book on a page of his­tory

Loss of fam­ily-owned book­store, a land­mark in Songkhla prov­ince, robs lo­cals of lo­cal knowl­edge and a place where cus­tomers felt at home, writes Phuw­a­sit Suk­sai

Bangkok Post - - ROUNDUP -

Af­ter more than six decades in the busi­ness, a renowned book and sta­tion­ary shop in Songkhla’s Muang district has closed its doors for the last time, de­feated by fast-paced changes in tech­nol­ogy and the eco­nomic land­scape. The clo­sure of the flag­ship Bannakon bookshop, in the down­town com­mer­cial heart of the district, has dealt a blow to the prov­ince’s mar­ket­place of knowl­edge.

The bookshop, lo­cated on Sai Buri Road in Ban Bo Yang, rolled down its steel shut­ters at the start of this month. Its smaller branch on Wichian Shom Road in the district, which opened in 1987, is still there, although there is no telling how long it will be able to stay in busi­ness.

Bannakon’s flag­ship bookshop was founded in 1952 by Key­oon Intawong and his wife, Sumontha. The shop was given the name Bannakon by Phra Maha Lek, a se­nior monk of Wat Yang Thong, who was an old friend of Ms Sumontha. The name aptly means hand­made books.

The flag­ship store and the branch were run by a sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion owner, Theer­a­pat Intawong, the old­est son of the fam­ily.

Mr Key­oon came from Nakhon Si Tham­marat’s Pak Phanang district be­fore set­tling down in Songkhla. Mr Theer­a­pat said his fa­ther sailed to Songkhla from Nakhon Si Tham­marat to trade in rice and salt, but he felt he could forge a bet­ter life in Songkhla, at a time when he was fac­ing hard­ship on his farm in Pak Phanang.

“My Dad saw a bookshop but it was not open reg­u­larly so he asked to buy it. He also per­suaded Mum to help sell books here,” Mr Theer­a­pat said.

Ac­cord­ing to Ms Sumontha, Bannakon was the first book and sta­tion­ary store in Ban Bo Yang of Muang district. She dou­bled as sales­woman and ac­coun­tant at the store. Her hus­band, who was at the time work­ing on cargo ships, also lent a hand.

In its early days, the store sold var­i­ous news­pa­pers, such as Phim Thai, the Bangkok Times, Siam Rath, Seang Angth­ong and Prachakon Thai, as well as both Thai and Chi­nese fic­tion books.

News­pa­pers went for 75 sa­tang apiece and fic­tion books, one baht, while the cou­ple earned a 30% profit from the sales.

Most buy­ers, Ms Sumontha noted, were ed­u­cated civil ser­vants who had their pulse on the news. The book­store also de­liv­ered books and other pub­li­ca­tions to cus­tomers at home and to state agen­cies.

She said sales were “su­perb” for many years af­ter the shop’s open­ing, with cus­tomers of­ten queu­ing up even be­fore the doors opened.

With bur­geon­ing sales, the shop was fill­ing up with cus­tomers. The cou­ple de­cided to in­vest in the branch on Wichian Shom Road, which was also well-re­ceived.

“Sell­ing books has its mer­its. We can gain knowl­edge at the same time,” said Ms Sumontha, who joked that she could read shelf af­ter shelf of books with­out hav­ing to pay.

She said her chil­dren were book­worms able to pick from stacks of books and read to their hearts’ con­tent. She her­self was a fan of fic­tion.

“Mum al­ways in­stilled in us the habit of read­ing,” said Mr Theer­a­pat, who has helped run the store since grad­u­at­ing from univer­sity.

How­ever, stand-alone book­stores took a bat­ter­ing with the ad­vent of e-books and on­line or­ders. The mar­ket slow­down ground the flag­ship store to a halt and the fam­ily de­cided it was no longer vi­able to keep it go­ing.

“Af­ter the store closed, Mum moved to the Wichian Shom branch,” Mr Theer­a­pat said.

Mr Theer­a­pat’s younger brother, Sithipong, 57, who man­ages that branch, said the store faces sim­i­lar chal­lenges.

The branch un­der­went a facelift re­cently. The at­mos­phere must be light and airy and books are pre­sented at­trac­tively to em­u­late the am­biance of pop­u­lar book­stores in Bangkok.

Mr Sithipong said book sales bur­geoned be­tween 1987 and 1997. How­ever, the past cou­ple of years have been painful for most book­stores, many of which have thrown in the towel af­ter fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle in cut-throat com­pe­ti­tion with on­line shops.

How­ever, some un­ex­pected in­ci­dents, such as nat­u­ral calami­ties, as well as na­tional events such as the royal cre­ma­tion of the late King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej, have boosted sales of news­pa­pers, which cre­ates rare sales spikes for the book­stores.

The clo­sure of the flag­ship book­store means the loss of a lo­cal en­ter­prise which help spread many branches of knowl­edge — rang­ing from se­ri­ous con­tent on the Euro­pean Union to easy-to-fol­low recipes in cook books — within the com­mu­nity. The charm of the old book­store is what most cus­tomers will miss the most.

The Bangkok Post spoke to some cus­tomers, who said books picked from the shelves feel “real” in their hands. That, and the dis­tinc­tive whiff of the pages, are some­thing that can­not be found in any e-book.

One cus­tomer, too shy to give his name, said the book­store had a homely feel to it as cus­tomers were treated like fam­ily. The owner knew where ev­ery book was kept and was able to give rec­om­men­da­tions. Or­ders could also be placed for up­com­ing books.

The cus­tomer said it was a pity that many fam­ily-run, stand­alone book­shops are dis­ap­pear­ing as dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy is mak­ing rapid in­roads into peo­ple’s lives.

“Aun­tie (Ms Sumontha) is vi­va­cious, de­spite her age. I’m one of those ad­dicted to read­ing books from the shelves. Bannakon’s flag­ship bookshop let you read all you want be­fore you de­cided to buy,” he said.

“It’s quite hard to de­scribe it. With the shop now closed, some­thing is miss­ing from the neigh­bour­hood.”

SEA Write Awards lau­re­ate Mon­tree Sriy­ong, who is a na­tive of Songkhla, cred­its his suc­cess in lit­er­a­ture in his adult life to a bookshop he reg­u­larly vis­ited when he was a young boy. Be­ing sur­rounded by books em­bold­ens a de­sire to cul­ti­vate knowl­edge, which will only grow with time, he said.

He added the shop owner and cus­tomers have a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship, brought ever closer by their com­mon in­ter­est in books.

His favourite bookshop in the prov­ince sold Chi­nese-lan­guage news­pa­pers to an older gen­er­a­tion of cus­tomers. How­ever, read­ers of such news­pa­pers were di­min­ish­ing and with dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion tak­ing hold, the shops stood lit­tle chance of sur­viv­ing.

“I still pre­fer read­ing pa­per books to e-books. Peer­ing at a com­puter mon­i­tor for a long time can give you a headache,” he said.

Book­shops need to adapt to keep cus­tomers com­ing back and to cap­ture new ones, Mr Mon­tree said.

Sell­ing books has its mer­its. We can gain knowl­edge at the same time.

SUMONTHA INTAWONG CO-OWNER OF BANNAKON’S FLAG­SHIP BOOKSHOP

A boarded-up wooden shop­house that once served as the lo­ca­tion of the flag­ship Bannakon bookshop, in the com­mer­cial heart of Songkhla’s Muang district. The shop, one of the last re­main­ing stand-alone book­shops of a by­gone era, has closed af­ter los­ing out to dig­i­tal book sales.

PHO­TOS BY PHUW­A­SIT SUK­SAI

BE­LOW A fam­ily takes a pic­ture to­gether at the smaller branch of Bannakon, which opened in 1987 on Wichian Shom Road in Muang district. Co-founder Sumontha Intawong is in the mid­dle, flanked by her son, Sithipong Intawong, who man­ages the branch, and Mr Sithipong’s wife An­chalee.

ABOVE

An old photo shows a sign with Bannakon writ­ten on it in Thai. It was hung in front of the now-closed store.

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