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Phnom Penh by the book: a reader’s tour of the city

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Phnom Penh’s major book stores: D’s (top), Bohr’s, Boston and Monument .

Book stores are like coffee shops: everyone has their favourite, even though they all provide the same basic stuff. Whether it’s dark wood, leather couches and surly, tattooed employees, or faux-IKEA furniture, green aprons and Disneyland smiles, it can be argued that the product is the same and that it doesn’t matter where you get it. But just like getting a good cup of coffee, buying a book is as much about the atmosphere of store as it is the contents of the pages.

Phnom Penh has four major bookstores, clustered around Street 240 and Norodom, as well as the Riverside. I didn’t find much in the way of tattoos or holier-than-thou baristas judging my purchases, except maybe my fellow patrons, who more often than not are reading nothing better than Dan Brown.

Dan Brown can only be found in limited quantities here, which is quite surprising as his books are the most common ones to be found in charity shops across the US and the UK. Instead I discovered a selection of random authors and what one would think is their entire collected works.

D’s Books
In a sentence: Has a wide selection. Almost anyone can find something to interest them.
The crowd: Ideal for everyone
Top shelf: Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw by Will Ferguson

D’s Books, at both of its locations on street 240 and on the riverfront just around the corner from the FCC, has a huge amount of 60s and 70s science fiction. Most of it from Piers Anthony and L Ron Hubbard.

I’m left wondering where to start with either author, but the one thing I do know is that I should avoid Dianetics.

Boston Books
In a sentence: The most traditional of the bookstores, with seats and a cafe.
The crowd: Has great resources for teachers and students.
Top Shelf: Where’s Waldo Now? by what’s-his-name.

Boston Books provides a lot of what they term “Bestsellers”, but there’s nothing they have that sells me on the store more than the coffee.

When I went to the modern literature section I found Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series shelved not in the bestsellers or sci-fi/fantasy sections but alongside the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Salman Rushdie and Maya Angelou, which I’m sure tween girls everywhere are excited to hear. I also found Waldo, much to my flatmate’s chagrin – he holds to the firm belief that his name is Wally.

Monument Books
In a sentence: Sells new books and magazines, the only store in town to do so.
The crowd: Best for kids.
Top Shelf: The Natural History of the Unicorn by Chris Lavers

If books are a meal for the mind then Monument Books has taken that idea literally, as the staff saran wrap everything like it’s a sandwich. The problem is that most of their books can’t be devoured over lunch, as they’re meant for a coffee table.

Big, hefty and new, they’re tomes to take home and display. If I were a kid though that place would be heaven, what with Blue Pumpkin ice cream and Monument Toys, along with the great section of children’s books available all in one building.

Bohrs
In a sentence: The quick and cheap option when you’re desperate for something to read and don’t want to give money to the street kids.
The crowd: Anyone in need of a book.
Top Shelf: The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton

There’s always a runt in the litter, and Bohr’s Books is that, as well as the red-headed step-child no one likes. Small and kept out of the way, it does have something to offer but you have to discover what that is by first showing it some love. For me, it’s the fact that the books are cheap and that I’ve found a few books there that the other stores just don’t have making it worth the visit.

For all my wandering the aisles of Phnom Penh aimlessly, I have to say that I miss the advice, solicited or otherwise, from snarky literature elitists and buxom baristas. The two go hand in hand and are often the same tattooed sage of hipsterdom providing me with sound reading advice. But here I have none of that and am instead left to my own devices no matter which store I’m in, so I turn to my phone and Goodreads.com or Amazon reviews for suggestions of what to read next and pine for my next chance to return to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon.

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