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The treasure of a senior citizen in Hoi An
By Nhan Tam
Friday,  Feb 8, 2019,08:55 (GMT+7)

The treasure of a senior citizen in Hoi An

By Nhan Tam

Nguyen Dinh Cu and his special bookstore which he treasures - PHOTO: NHAN TAM

A bookstore in the ancient town of Hoi An in the central coastal province of Quang Nam is rather special. The books on offer there are all in foreign languages. The store also stands out for its unique way of selling and exchanging books: its customers can take out any book they like, but they have to leave behind two of their own books.

The bookstore is peacefully sandwiched by rows of fashion stores, picture galleries, cafés and general stores on Phan Boi Chau Street. It has no name, but has a a sign that reads “Books for sale and exchange.” The bookshop’s owner is Nguyen Dinh Cu, an octogenarian.

The house No. 43 where his bookstore is located, like other houses on the street, is typical of Hoi An, with its ancient, yellow walls and classical architecture. In 1969, Cu bought this house where his family lived, without any business activities, until the 1990s. At that time, his daughter’s family launched a bookstore which sold second-hand books in foreign languages on Tran Phu Street alongside some other bustling bookstores. However, most of these stores were gradually shut down to be replaced by ‘ao dai’ stores, souvenir shops and restaurants which better suited the shopping needs of tourists.

It was not until the early 2000s that Cu’s daughter changed her business. Consequently, she closed down the bookstore and brought all the books to her father’s house. As he thought it would be wasteful if those books were disposed of, the retired teacher Cu suggested he and his son-in-law should open a bookstore without a shop sign at his home. He reasoned that the store would serve as a cultural exchange place rather than pure commercial purposes.

To diversify the books he has, Cu has tried his best to increase the number of his books and improves their quality in various ways, one of which is the “two in exchange for one” method. “If my customers want to pick one book in my collection, they have to leave two of their own books which have the same value,” says Cu. Some hotel staff members, or even scrap dealers who learn about his plan to collect more books are willing to give him their foreign language books, or sell them at low prices, he adds. This way, Cu also purchases other well-known books.

So far, the number of books in Cu’s collection has risen to nearly 5,000 from the initial tally of 400-500. His books are diverse when it comes to their languages and origins—the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Japan and so on. Cu proudly says his bookstore is the one with the largest number of second-hand books in Hoi An, and is the only store to sell and exchange used books available in the ancient town.

At first, taking over the books of his daughter was just a chance Cu was offered. Yet he has been able to turn his passionate interest in books into chances of sharing them with foreign tourists. From 20 to 30 tourists visit his bookshop a day, and from four to five of them actually do a transaction. “To me, that doesn’t matter much,” Cu says. “Besides profits, meeting and talking to other people from all over the world can be my greatest privilege,” he says. “What I want is to bring people of mutual interest together so as to encourage cultural exchange through book exchange.”

According to Cu, some foreign customers came to his house to seek books, and they were over the moon with their favorite books they had spent a long time searching for. “Seeing them getting excited and talking chirpily also make me happy,” he says.

Some foreign visitors regard his bookstore as their reading room. They spend hours on end going through an entire book without saying a single word. Of all the foreign customers, some have tried to find books on Vietnamese history and culture, as well as her revolutionary wars, written in English and other languages. However, this is his matter of concern, as either he rarely collects this genre of books or some available fail to meet the demand.

Another concern is to maintain the bookstore which he considers his “treasure.” As he is now in his eighties, Cu is afraid that he has not much time left to do the job although it seems simple. While his children follow their own careers, his grandchildren either study abroad or work in other fields. “It is incredibly difficult for my kids and grandkids to follow in my footsteps,” he says, adding that he is looking for an expert who will show him how to protect his books from being damaged as time passes.

Also, his current wish is to co-operate with the local authorities in charge of culture and tourism in preserving and developing the bookstore as a cultural exchange destination in the ancient town. Cu’s bookstore is on Phan Boi Chau Street, which is locally known as “the French street in Hoi An,” because many of the street’s old characteristics are still out there. “It’ll be a great regret to give up the store,” he says.

Phan Boi Chau Street is set to become a place where Vietnamese-French arts and cultural events will take place, according to Vo Phung, director of the Center for Culture and Sports of Hoi An. Facilities such as Cu’s bookstore will receive support from the local government to be translated into tourist destinations. In doing so, they are expected to attract more tourists from France and other European nations, creating a new tourism product for Hoi An.

If this project becomes a reality in the next few years, the “treasure” of the ex-teacher may last for a longer time.

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