The art of collecting and giving

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Book-collectors are a rare breed, but young book lovers rarer still


Minh Ngoc, an old book trader, stands in her shop of the same name on Vo Van Tan St., HCMC

Priest Nguyen Huu Triet is a regular client at the local scrap dealers, always looking for old, rare books that most people would sell by the kilo if they did not trash them earlier.

An avid book collector, such books are invaluable to Triet.

But the busy priest is not interested in hoarding his treasure.

"Books are for reading, so the collector must give his books for others to enjoy.

"I have collected hundreds of books published since the 19th century," said Triet, 66, who donated a collection of the Tale of Kieu (by Nguyen Du), including 1,600 different copies of the novel published since 1872 to the Hue diocese in September.

According to senior book collector and translator Vu Anh Tuan, president of the book club Xua & Nay (Past and Present), book collecting has long history in the city, but not many followers.

"In addition to local intellectuals and professors, there are only 12 professional book collectors who own thousands of invaluable books in Saigon," said the 74-year-old collector, who owns more than 3,000 old, rare books.

Tuan said his club has several members, but genuine book collectors are few.

Tuan said that unlike the humble, discreet book collectors in the north, people in Ho Chi Minh City are more open and active in book exchanging activities. However, in the 1960s and subsequent years, several books were lost as the hobby declined during war time.

Hung Truong, the late owner of the then-biggest bookstore Khai Tri in the city was one of greatest collectors whose books were kept in a 2,000 square-meter warehouse in District 1. He was unable to carry all his books abroad when he left the country, so his relatives stole the books and sold them just months after his departure.

Tuan said that he bought some books of the late scholar Vuong Hong Sen (1902-1996) with his signatures for US$15 because Sen's descendants sold all his books after he passed away.

Bookstores selling old and rare books have also closed down. Following the closure of the famous Ky Thu Bookstore on Vo Van Tan Street, another one nearby, Minh Ngoc, will down its shutters soon.

"I opened three bookstores thirty years ago, two of them have closed already, and now the remaining will soon follow its brothers because I cannot bear the high renting costs which is $700 per month," said Cau Minh Ngoc, the owner.

Some years ago, Ngoc had to sell 400 books among his best ones that he had collected for years for 15 taels of gold as he needed money to buy a house.

Minh Ngoc said that most of his young clients these days look for comic books, and step away as he suggests them to read old books to enrich their knowledge.

"Young people nowadays spend most of their time playing games and watching TV. Most of families earn more money, but not many keep their traditional bookshelves in their house like in the past," Ngoc said.

Concurring with Ngoc, Tuan said that young people find it difficult to comprehend such good old books as most of them are presented in Chinese, Nom, and French, as Vietnam was occupied by both Chinese and French for centuries.

"Good books are only chosen by good collectors," he said.

Tuan added that among the rich, very few treasure and appreciate books. Most book-lovers are not rich, he said.

Better than gambling

Duong Thanh Hoai, vice director of Nha Nam Culture and Media Joint-stock Company, is among the young book collectors in HCMC who has held several exhibitions of old books, including the Tale of Kieu and prewar literature, at the Nha Nam book club recently.

"Book collecting is not expensive and wasteful, compared with other hobbies, especially gambling," Hoai said.

"One book by itself is not expensive, but to pursue the hobby, one must collect thousands of books, unlike cock-fighting, which requires only one to three well good ones for a good fight," said Duong Thanh Hoai.

Hoang Minh, a 40-year-old man who owns Tunchinensis Histoire (History of Northern Vietnam) by Alexandre Rhodes published in 1651 that has won prizes at several contests in Vietnam, says a book collector should pursue specific books, categorized by themes.

Thanks to the Internet, Hoang Minh, Thanh Hoai and Vu Dinh Hue have created forums and websites to trade and discuss old books. Minh's 500 books were bought from online markets and several from online bookstore.

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