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Q&A: Chea Sopheap

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Chea Sopheap, the owner of Bohr’s bookstores (one behind the FCC at 5 Sothearos Blvd and the other behind Wat Ounalum on St 172) spoke to Abe Becker about why he selected the bookstores’ name, which authors and subjects his customers are buying, and why he does not feel threatened by Kindle or other digital reading devices.  

How did you get into the book-selling business and where did you get the name for your stores?
Through my physics teacher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, an Australian named Jerry Walter. I graduated in 1997 with a major in physics then trained for one year to be a teacher. After six months of teaching high school, Jerry offered me a job as his assistant at London Books. I quit teaching and went to work right away. After four years I decided to open a second-hand bookstore of my own. I chose Bohr’s because I love learning about the nature of reality. Physics describes it so beautifully and mathematically. My favourite physicist is Niels Bohr, hence Bohr’s Books.

What clientele do you attract and do you notice differences in taste between groups?
Most of my customers are tourists, mainly from Europe. I get a few local expats and about 10 per cent are Khmer. Most are young, around 20 to 25 years of age, and about 30 per cent are over 50. Older customers prefer the classics, while the younger ones go for contemporary fiction and classics. European tourists like fiction. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is our most popular book. Philosophy and religion are very popular, especially Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, as is popular science. Books on Buddhism sell well, but we don’t get many in. Cambodian history is popular, as are [Khmer-language] phrase books and Lonely Planet guides. Khmer customers come to my stores to buy non-fiction. They like biographies of famous people like Barak Obama, Lance Armstrong or someone like that. They are also very interested in current affairs.

What languages are most of your books written in?
About 80 per cent are English, 10 per cent German, five per cent French and a few others in various languages, but none in Khmer.

Are you worried about people switching to Kindles or other digital devices for reading?
No, I’m not worried. I think people will always like books they can hold. It feels right. Also, I think people like the smell of ink on paper and the noise when you flip a page. Personally, I find it much easier on my eyes to read words on paper.

Why are your bookstores so popular?
Because I feel this job is suitable for me, and I know what people want to read, what people like. I know what to buy and how much to pay. It took time, but now I know how to do it and I feel I can do very well. I also have lots of space in my stores. If bookshops are closed in it puts pressure on people, while if it is open they can see all the books and decide what they like. I have my bookshops open so people don’t feel bombarded with books or spend hours searching for what they want. I have two bookstores in the riverside area, but if possible I would like to open  one big bookstore and close the two smaller ones.

What kind of books do you like?
Oh, I like fiction. I love Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist was a wisdom book for me. It taught me everything.

Will there be any changes at your bookstores in the near future?
Yes, I recently imported a very large collection of books from the UK. They should be on the shelves in a few weeks.

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