a true hanoi original
Probably the most famous second hand bookshop amongst Hanoi students is located not in the Old Quarter, the university districts or within the clusters of book stores and publishers in and around Tràng Tiền street and the first blocks of Bà Triêu street. This narrow, dusty shop is instead a lone offering in a sea of restaurants, boutiques, motorcycle shops and other far more mundane storefronts much further down Bà Triệu.
My initial impression of the owner Mr. Lương Ngọc Dư is that he fulfills the essential characteristics of a larger-than-life second hand bookseller: an absolute passion for books, a prodigious knowledge of Vietnamese literature, and a sharp wit that suggests a certain pleasure in jousting with his customers and now and then taking them down a peg or two. In successive visits to his shop I have been both praised for awareness of some obscure detail of the city’s literary history, and chided as an absolute beginner for missing far more obvious details.
In fact, Mr. Dư could easily be mistaken for a character in one of the novels he sells.
He has an enormous range of reference books in various languages and vintages, which students buy and resell in the course of their studies. On various online student forums of Hanoi Mr. Dư is described as very arrogant (kiêu thật), extremely difficult (khó tính vô cùng) and even as an “old goose” (“gã ngông”). This style of course makes him something akin to the owners of the most famous phở stalls in Hanoi, where rudeness is considered a mark of authenticity, and he has respect as well as notoriety.
Mr. Dư holds court at 180 Bà Triệu street amongst thousands of books jammed onto shelves, stacked in rough piles in the narrow aisles, resting in gaps in the brickwork and overflowing out onto the sidewalk. He rebinds books between customers, laying aside his tools once his interest is taken, answering questions and making suggestions as he directs customers to a certain shelf or a particular book.
For me the highlights of this shop are titles from two important periods of Vietnamese literature, firstly the 1950s immediately following the liberation of Hanoi from colonial forces, and secondly the 1980s when a rising generation of writers found new voices to talk about certain neglected and very human aspects of the American war and the post-war period. Some of these books have been bought and sold so many times their covers are replaced with pages of old calendars, while others are so rare that the customer’s only hope is that Mr. Dư may offer to make a photocopy from his personal collection.
I won’t list all my purchases here from my first few visits – in fact I would struggle to do so as some of them are already lent out to friends. Suffice to say I expect to be making the journey down Bà Triệu street quite often.