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Tea Leaves

In praise of Southeast Asia's independent booksellers

Region's struggling community of quirky bookstores keep cultural creativity alive

Gerakbudaya Bookshop, in Penang, Malaysia, is one of Southeast Asia's "destination" bookstores. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

I fondly remember back in 2007, when I was still new to Asia, how I would go to a special place in Chiang Mai's Soi Ratchaphruek after each of my "maiden expeditions" into the surrounding remote hill tribe territory.

It was not a club where I could binge on cold beer and Western comfort food. Instead, as a small-town nerd from Italy, I was missing books and literature, and my destination was Silkworm Books, a most unusual bookstore back then for Southeast Asia. Filled with soaring metallic shelves neatly packed with volumes of all shapes, sizes and languages, it constituted the "betwixt and between" of global culture in a part of the world where literary emporiums were rare, even in a fairly developed nation like Thailand.

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