I love things old and used. It could be a psychological residual from growing up with hand-downs. Most of my clothes came from my sister and my cousins. And I should have realized the first symptoms of a life-long curse when I happily traded my brand-new pens, and even a bicycle, for my sister’s used ones. Years later, everywhere I go, I religiously hit the local thrift store or the flea market. I don’t even like shopping that much, but being cheap, nothing beats the rush of finding deals. They’re unique, cost next to nothing, and usually last me a long time – what’s not to like? I’ve got a $2 SIg top (one of the most loved designers in Hawaii), $4 quirky little silver rings in Mexico City, and sweaters and jackets at $2.50 a piece to survive the winter in Cuzco.

Of all, my favorite is books. Their yellowed brittle pages speak of so much history. Who knows how many hands they have been through and what each owner thought after they’d put the book down? Even though I wonder, I don’t like too much notation on the margin. But it’s a nice touch if there’s some dedication words on the first page to a cherished someone, or a few short exclamations next to a paragraph that grabs the reader.

My sister and I fought a lot growing up. Literally fought. Hair pulling, punching, chair throwing. (Sis always won of course). But we share the love of reading, and I owe it to her. I don’t know where she squeezed money from, but she bought all these expensive multivolume encyclopedia and novels and history books; and I started reading them in 6 grade. We only had one dream together: that we would buy adjacent houses and build a gigantic common library to connect the two. That dream probably will never happen. Regardless we managed to stock up have a sizable collection at our parents’. After my first year at college, back when the US postal service still offered cheap sea shipping, I sent home a 80lb package. My parents were so disappointed after having lugged the huge box home to find nothing else but books. Sorry parents. They unfortunately don’t share our appreciation for books and repeatedly threaten to throw them away to clear up space in the house. I try once a year, if I get to go home, to take all the books out to sunbathe and breath some fresh air, and to check which pages need gluing back. My dear books. I wish I could give you a better home.

At college, I applied to the library’s restoration department thinking it’d be a good skill to learn since I have so many oldies at home, but I didn’t pass the dexterity test. I took the circulation desk job instead and worked there throughout my 4 years. Even when I wasn’t working, I still found myself there, sometimes simply to nap while inhaling in that unmistakable mustiness as if it was some tranquilizer. Checking books in and out and shelving them, it didn’t take long to learn the US Library of Congress classification system. And I still remember till this day: B is for philosophy, M for music, and P for fiction. I walked through the aisles and felt a sense of calmness, eyes lingering on unknown names and titles etched in gold on red, dark blue, or black leather binding. Praises be to the US collegiate library system. It comes with a price tag, but what a joy being able to walk freely amongst millions of books.

In Vietnam, in the old days, I used to pedal to all the famous book shops and streets, scrounging for old translations of foreign literature. They tend to be of much higher quality with chapter-length translator’s introduction that reviews the political context and the literary school of the work at hand, and with ample footnotes of translation and cultural references throughout the book. It brings pleasure and a sense of gratification reading such masterful translation and seeing the thought and care put in by translators. so obviously in love with the text. And picking up the book or putting it down, you can’t help lifting it to your nose for a quick sniff. Most of these stores no longer exist. Many novels are available online now. But mainly, it’s the flood of pirate books, crispy and just as cheap, that has pushed them out of business.

The legendary few still hang on. In Hanoi, the big name is the one on 180 Ba Trieu st. I went there once, young and naive. The owner greeted me with a blunt “What do you want?” and I sheepishly said “I’m looking for a Tran Dan (a banned Vietnamese poet) anthology.” He eyed me from head to toe while I tried my best to stay my ground instead of inching to the door. “Ok, stay there,” he said and went into the inner half of the store, climbed up and down a ladder, came back, and pushed in front of me what I’d asked for. I paid, said a weak “thank you” and left. That was years ago. If I badly want a hard-to-find title, I would go there first as he is sure to have it, if not an edition then at least a xeroxed copy. But much of the joy of going to a bookstore is walking around and chancing upon a little rough diamond that you don’t know until that moment you’d take home.

Thanks to the excellent blog Hanoi Ink, I found one near my house. It’s so typical it’s heartwarming. Books piled up to the ceiling, books spilling on the floor. Owned and staffed by an old gentleman who sips his tea and glues books. My main hunting prize these days is books in French and Spanish, so that I can keep up with the languages. Spanish books, as expected, were few and far. There was a fair selection of French novels, 20130811_095322mostly classic ones. I bought two; both came from Giang Vo middle school – my alma mater; I didn’t even know we had a library there. My take-home cost me so little, about 10-15k a book. And bonus point to the owner for being so nice and offering to bring out more French books from his house if I wanted to look at them.

A couple of weeks ago, while working in Hoi An, I passed by a sign that says Randy’s book exchange. At lunch break, waiting for a friend to come, I decided to go back there and take a look. All of the second floor is dedicated to English, while the first one features everything else: plenty of German and French, quite a few in Japanese and Dutch. It obviously caters to expats and tourists and I wonder how accurately it reflects that demographics. There were a dozen of Spanish books but nothing appealed to me. And the high price didn’t justify a random purchase.

20130908_172028Back in Da Nang, I finally found motivation to go back to the College of Teacher Training area. I had spotted a few shops across from the school while riding my scooter around that neighborhood for work a few times, but never had a chance to stop. Serving students, most of the space is dedicated to manuals and textbooks, but there are a few big piles of Vietnamese and translated literature. Foreign languages were confined to guidebooks on Vietnam. I finally had my luck at the last shop. Stacked on the highest shelves on the back row, covered in a film of black exhaust soot. My final three ended up being all translation works, but I was still happy: a Swedish thriller translated into Spanish, Nguyễn Khắc Trường’s famous Mảnh đất lắm người nhiều ma (Land of men and ghosts) and a collection of short stories by Vietnamese writers around the world, both of the latter translated into French.