Finding the latest Sophie Kinsella bestseller or Harry Potter hardback can be a tiresome task in Burma. Very few shops sell brand-new books in English. If you do happen to track one down, it might cost you somewhere around 30,000 kyat (US $40)— more than 10 times the daily wage that a factory worker in Rangoon earns.
Of course, you can always find an old moth-eaten John Grisham novel on the bookshelves for three or four dollars, perhaps even a dusty George Orwell or a yellowing dog-eared copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.
In fact, chances are that if you do find a stall or a second-hand bookstore on your travels, it will be teeming with eager bookworms ransacking through piles of paperbacks, trying to quench their thirst for world literature.
That’s why it was just a joy to come upon 67-year-old Khin Maung Sein and his quaint alcove of bookshelves located under the staircase of an old colonial building in downtown Rangoon.
And let’s face it … where else could you find gems such as “An Account of An Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava,” written by British officer Michael Symes in the late 18th century?
Question: What drives you to work as a bookseller?
Answer: Literature is my profession as well as my greatest passion. I have been selling books for more than 30 years, and I cannot even imagine any other way to make a living.
Q: So how did it all come about?
A: It began in 1977. At that time I was a family man and a primary school teacher in Mandalay. The pay was not very good so I had to find a way to earn some extra income. I found out that some of my fellow teachers were selling books at the night market. As it happened, I had quite a large collection of books, mostly novels. I thought: ‘why not?’ and I joined them at the market after school was finished. It worked out.
At that time, my family was in Rangoon where my wife worked for a government office. I couldn’t travel to see them so often because I couldn’t afford it. Then suddenly I had a financial incentive to go to Rangoon—I knew good places where I could buy books. I would take the train down every Friday, spend the weekend with my family and replenish my stock.
Then in 1979 I was about to be posted in a high school in a remote corner of the country. Taking into account my children’s future, I resigned from school and moved back to Rangoon. My first bookstall was on the pavement near the passport office on Pansodan Street.
Q : Wasn’t that a hard transition? I mean, in so far as you went from a highly regarded and respectable position to being a street vendor.
A: Not really. I was happy to be working so directly with literature, and living with my wife and children again. I believe there’s no shame in making an honest living.
I was in Mandalay recently and some of my former students came to see me to pay their respects. Some gave me a big hug, and they all still addressed me as saya gyi [great teacher]. I must admit that I felt proud to be a teacher—but I was always happier to be a bookseller.
Q: Do you specialize in any particular subject?
A: No, I don’t. I’m a generalist. I deal with every subject apart from engineering. But I have a special love for books on Burma published between 1800 and 1910. They are the only ones internationally recognized as ‘rare books’ and were published in the early days of the British Raj, and were written in English by foreigners.
Some of my favorites include “An Account of An Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava” by Michael Symes, “Wanderings in Burma” by George W. Bird, and “Burma” by Max and Bertha Ferrars.
I put them on display in 2006, and sold some of them. But I still keep a few volumes for myself.
Q : They must be expensive. Who buys them?
A : There are some local collectors here in Rangoon. For first editions, generally I can name the price. But I always negotiate with true collectors. For those who can’t afford to buy an original, I can make a photocopied version.
Q : Doesn’t that infringe on copyright?
A : Not at all. Any work that is more than 100 years old is public domain.
Q : Are there any rare books published in Burmese?
A : We generally regard books published before World War II as rare books. For example, books from the Red Dragon Book Club. But most of them were destroyed during the war. So, for even myself, I still haven’t seen some of the books published by the club.
Q : Who are your everyday customers?
A : Local bookworms. Sometimes foreigners drop in to buy novels. University students and scholars working on their theses are frequent visitors.
When the Constitution was being drafted, ministers sent their junior staff to look for reference books. They were always in a rush, saying ‘Uncle, hurry up, please. I have to hand that book to “him” as soon as he gets off the plane.’
When Ne Win was in power, one of his ministers called me and said, ‘I want such-and-such a book. Send it to me by this evening.’ Just like that. So, of course, I had to do it. A few days later he gave me a ring to inform me that he liked the book and had decided to add it to his collection. He didn’t even pay for it.
Q : You’re not getting any younger, Uncle. What are you going to do with the thousands of books you have collected?
A : I haven’t decided yet. It pains me that I don’t have anyone to hand them over to. My wife has no interest in literature. My children have passed away.
I always used to feel so sad when I sold one of my favorite works. It’s like handing your heart over to a stranger. I’m trying my best to cut the bond to my books. After all, I can’t take them with me when I die. I think I’ll sell them all, including the books on Burma. I’ll keep photocopies as reminders that, once upon a time, I owned those precious books.
#82 ground floor, 37th street, Kyauktada Township, Rangoon