Dasa Book Cafe, A Swanky Second-Hand Bookshop, Pells An End To Dingy Rooms With Dusty Titles
Before the Internet there were books – a world of information and prose that circulated across continents and travelled through time via the shelves of new and second-hand bookstores.
The owners of Dasa Book Cafe are trying to recapture those days, when browsing was done over stacks of worn books rather than with the push of a button. Like digitally remastered analogue recordings, there is an element that goes missing when text is translated into electronic blips and books are chosen from description rather than a flipping through them.
“You see stories in newspapers every year that book sales are declining as more people play video games and use the Internet,” says Donald Gilliland, who opened the Dasa Book Cafe with Kaweewut Wuttiwipoo (Kiwi) just two months ago. “But people who like books are still going to read books. They’re not going to stop.”
The Dasa Book Cafe, a two-storey shop located near the Phrom Phong BTS station between Sukhumvit sois 26 and 28, stocks nearly 10,000 used books ranging from food to fiction. While the bulk of the books are in English, there are some German and Swedish titles as well. Gilliland collected almost all the tomes himself and continually buys books from customers who frequent Dasa.
Gilliland’s hunt for books might seem obsessive, but “finding books that I haven’t read, or wouldn’t even be interested in reading, makes it kind of a treasure hunt,” he says. “Because I know there are other people who will enjoy these books.”
Bangkok has only a handful of second-hand bookstores, like Shaman on Khao San Road, Elite Books in Phrom Phong and some stalls at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. But what sets Dasa apart is its organisation and ambience.
Dasa is Gilliland’s second used-book store. His first, Lazy Mango, is in Siam Reap, Cambodia. That’s where, two years ago, he began noticing the buying patterns and preferences among his customers, mainly backpackers, and began cultivating a knack for selecting books that others would enjoy reading.
“People always ask for ‘The Damage Done’, about an Australian locked up in a Bangkok jail,” Gilliland says. “There’s this weird fascination about foreigners in Asian jails – and about sex workers like in the book ‘Don’t Forget Your Daughter’.”
Also popular with his Siam Reap clientele are authors like Nick Hornby, Irvine Welsh and Tony Parsons. But in Bangkok, there’s less of that “because we deal with foreign residents and Thais, as well as tourists”, he notes.
So far Dasa’s customer base is about 70 per cent foreigners and 30 per cent Thais. The latter are mostly “college students buying books like Faulkner’s ‘Sound and Fury’, ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or wanting Toni Morrison books”, says Kiwi. Also popular with Thai patrons are mysteries by Agatha Christie, Jill Churchill, and Charlotte Heart.
The misconception that Thais don’t read is beginning to change, says Kiwi, who’s translating Ethan Hawke’s new novel “Ash Wednesday” for a local publisher. “People are starting to know what kind of books Thais want to read.” And second-hand bookstores make those books
more accessible. Foreigners living in Bangkok like biographies, fiction and history, especially Asian and Thai history, Gilliland says. Dasa’s children’s and romance sections also get a lot of traffic.
“Reading has to start at an early age,” Gilliland observes. “It’s difficult for people to pick up a reading habit as an adult.”
Rummaging through stacks of dusty books at Chatuchak Weekend Market, Gilliland recently came across a series of children’s mysteries called “Encyclopaedia Brown”. He bought the entire lot for resale at Dasa.
“This is the first thing I remember reading and being really being excited about,” he says. “The first book I read made me want to seek out and read all the other ones in the series.” Gilliland hadn’t seen the “Encyclopaedia Brown” series for more than 30 years.
Developing the reading habit “takes finding an author or genre you really like, whether it’s fantasy, mystery or whatever. It just snowballs from there,” Gilliland says. “I think most people don’t get exposed to that initially, or they don’t find that real special book that does something to them.”
Helping people find books is what Dasa specialises in. The name Dasa, a Pali word meaning “slave” or “servant”, expresses Gilliland’s and Kiwi’s passion for finding what their customers want. In addition to spending their days arranging books into neatly categorised sections, they offer services that are rare among other second-hand stores. For example, they’re currently uploading a searchable database of all the books they have in stock so that Internet users outside Bangkok can peruse their selection or hunt for out-of-print books.
“As a small retail store we know our customers by name and can provide more personal service than chain stores in big shopping centres,” Gilliland says. “We can specialise in people’s needs and can give them more of a homey atmosphere.”
That’s why there’s a cafe serving coffee and home-made desserts on Dasa’s first floor. “It’s something to let our customers feel at home and set us apart from other bookstores in town,” Kiwi says.
Kiwi, who handles Dasa’s marketing and bookkeeping, had to convince Gilliland that they needed to dedicate more open space for reading and relaxing to make the store more appealing. “If it were up to me, this place would just be a shabby hole with some nails and shelves on the wall,” Gilliland acknowledges.
Kiwi, who used to be in hotel management, knew the importance of appearance, and consulted interior designers and design books to plan the store’s layout. His efforts have proved fruitful: the decor was chic enough for FHM to do a fashion shoot at Dasa for its September issue.
But looks mean little without substance. Gilliland’s and Kiwi’s philosophy is to make Dasa more than a bookstore so people keep coming back. They’re hoping to encourage customers to return by expanding their selection, hosting readings and serving as a meeting centre for local book clubs.
“We’re even thinking about doing something with music because there’s a similar passion for music and books,” says Gilliland, who once
started a highly regarded record shop in his home state of Florida by selling bits of his massive record collection.
For the next few months, Gilliland says he’ll be scrutinising reading preferences in Bangkok “to figure out what our mix of books will ultimately be like”. And with his systematic approach to finding books, Dasa may very well become an analogue alternative to the search engines on the Internet.
By Manond Apanich