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