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Svay Rieng shop eyes trade in books, ideas

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Svay Rieng Town

Sok Kea is hoping his bookstore in the tiny provincial capital will provide space to encourage exchange of knowledge

Photo by:
THOMAS GAM NIELSEN

Sok Kea in his Kimnang Bookstore Saturday evening in Svay Rieng.

A BLUE A4 paper is stuck on a glass case with the words "Kimnang Bookstore Collection". Sok Kea proudly opens it and displays a three-shelf selection of classics on Indochina politics and history, including titles such as History of Cambodia by David Chandler and Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans and other secrets wars for Laos, 1942-1992 by Jane Hamilton-Merritt.

"I know it looks crazy to have these kinds of titles in Svay Rieng, but I really like the books and someone might come and buy one of them one day," said the 36-year-old owner of the tiny store nestled among hairdressers, small convenience stores and a mechanic's shop on Svay Rieng town's quiet main street.

The shop was opened last year by Sok Kea, who returned to his native province after working for eight years at one of Phnom Penh's main bookstores, Monument Books. He brought with him piles of English and Khmer books and the will to share his passion for literature with Cambodians young and old.

"When I visited friends in Svay Rieng, I saw there was no bookshop and I knew that the rent here is much cheaper than in Phnom Penh, so I decided to open my store and teach English as well," he said.

 I know it looks crazy to have these kinds of titles in svay rieng, but I really like the books and someone might come and buy one.

Sok Kea developed his passion for books while living and working in Phnom Penh. He read his first English book at the capital's National Library, and a small wry smile spread across his face as he let his visitors in on a secret. "Sometimes I snuck books out of the library underneath my shirt because I wanted to keep them," he said pointing to a level-two Japanese-language study book. "This is the only book I have left from the National Library."
Fountain of knowledge

Knowing that "Svay Rieng is a quiet province and most people do not have higher education", Sok Kea has also recently started conversational English-language classes, which provide him with a more steady income than that gained from the 40 books he sells every month.

"My classes feature reading of Newsweek magazine, so the university students can learn how to get an insight into the world surrounding them. I only charge 500 riels per student for a one-hour lesson," he said.

While at first local university students did not understand the concept of the bookstore and asked how much Sok Kea would charge them per hour for looking at the books, many of them have now developed the habit of paying regular visits to the small establishment.

"Now the shop is visited by foreign NGO workers passing through Svay Rieng, and the local people have also started to visit the shop more regularly," Sok Kea said.

Steady stream of visitors

Two monks, Chum Dantha and Okh Bunnareth, regularly visit the shop three times a month on the weekends.

Chum Dantha, a 30-year-old management student at the private University of Svay Rieng, enjoys finding extra books to help him with his courses.

"Without the bookstore it would be very difficult to find English management books here in Svay Rieng. The market has some, but not many."

Okh Bunnareth, 28, is preparing himself for university by taking a three-month course on marketing. But he mainly comes to the bookstore to find literature about Cambodian culture and history, especially about the Khmer Rouge regime.

"The most interesting books are about Khmer history," he said. "I especially like reading about the Khmer Rouge period because as a Cambodian I want to understand the details of the regime and I want to learn the reasons for the killings," he added.

Meeting people with a passion for books like the two monks is one of Sok Kea's favourite aspects of running the store.

"Every day I meet good people and talk about good books and exchange ideas," he said, adding that he sees the sharing of knowledge as a large part of his project.

Sok Kea hopes that his bookstore can inspire more people to read. "In the future if my business goes well, I will find a place with more space and make a coffee bar," he said. "People could then come and read books and newspapers, drink coffee and share their knowledge and common interests."

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