Keeping the reading habit alive

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  Philip Slocum, an American expat at his book exchange shop in Hoi An

Foreign visitors to the historic town Hoi An are able to read as many books as they want without having to pay a single dong.

Book-exchange services sprung up several years ago in the UNESCO heritage town in central Vietnam, enabling people to bring two books to take one home.

They offer readers a wide range of books in their original foreign languages.

Philip Slocum, a freelance writer from the US, joined in five years ago by bringing over a pile of books and setting up Randy's Book Xchange.

The collection of books traveled with him to many destinations, and once he decided to settle down in the old town, he started to enlarge it by asking people to bring two to get one.

To get a one-for-one exchange, people would have to pay a little.

"It is more of a hobby than a business," he told Vietweek by email. He was initially reluctant though and did not respond to Vietweek's questions for a while, saying "I like to keep a low profile."

"I named the book store Randy's Book Xchange as a kind of joke.

"It did not start out to be a book store. It was just that I had many books and my friends would come by and borrow or exchange books."

Slocum says it costs a lot of time and money to lay one's hands on a new foreign-language book in Vietnam.

But his collection is now mighty with more than 3,000 titles in German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese, and other languages.

"[They] are mostly fiction. Right now the most popular books are the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, Millennium trilogy, Game of Thrones, and The Hunger Games.

"I am sure there will be a surge of interest in the Hobbit now that a new movie is approaching."

His clients are almost exclusively tourists.

"Tourists love the shop because it is my home and very cool and clean. I also extend my knowledge of Southeast Asia to people that stop by.

"My extensive travels have given me a good understanding of visas, attractions, hotels, restaurants, and travel costs. So I help a lot of people and that pleases me."

Visitors can use the Internet for free and buy a hot or cold drink to sit there and read.

Situated on Cam Nam Island directly across from Cam Nam Bridge and less than 150 meters from the town's central market, his book store is open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

"I just love reading and like to help others find things they like to read," he said.

"As Cicero said, "˜A home without books is like a body without a soul,' I very much agree."

Randy's is thought to be the biggest foreign-language bookshop in Hoi An and one of the biggest in Vietnam, but Slocum says there are nine others across the ancient town.

"Most [others] are in the business of selling [pirated] books books that are not published by the original publisher and that do not return a financial consideration to the original publisher or author."

Whatever books they have, the shops aim to serve the thirst for reading of many foreign tourists in town.

Pham Thanh, owner of one book exchange shop on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, said: "Reading is a habit many foreigners have."

The service is attractive to foreigners, given that there is little else for them to do, he said.

Shoko, a Japanese visitor, said: "There are many old books that I could not find at home, but I have seen them at a book exchange shop in Hoi An."

Rod Lyon, an Australian tourist who also treasures original books he found in Hoi An, said he feels sad that many Vietnamese youths do not have the reading habit.

"I notice that young people at cafés only browse the Internet instead of having books in their hands."

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