When a couple turned a new page and a book street followed

An old teacher and his wife were the pioneers who set the stage for Hanoi’s book street.

The street is not officially pedestrian, but its nature makes it so.

Mention books, and just about every Hanoian will think of Dinh Le Street, just a few feet away from the iconic Sword Lake in the heart of the capital city.

Today, the street scene is a familiar one of people walking by or sitting in coffee shops with smart phones in their hands, swiping quickly through pieces of information, including short news pieces. However, this street stands out with an intellectual vibe imparted by its main trade - books.

Although it is a well known street, not many know that the couple who started it all, who set up the bookstore that went on to kickstart a book street, are located a few meters inside an alley.

Dinh Le Street is just a few feet away from the iconic Sword Lake.

The Mao Bookstore is a different world - a sixteen feet tall acacia, rusty colored walls, birds and the tranquility of a one-of-a-kind book haven.

Le Luy, 84, is known as the "Book King" of this place, a pioneer who, along with his wife, Pham Thi Mao, laid the foundations for this flourishing book street 30 years ago.

"We started with some books placed in a cradle and few wooden plates on the sidewalk near the Hoa Phong tower", said the old man, neat in gray patterned shirt, delight shining in his eyes as he recalled the past.

His hair is gray and his skin is wrinkled, but the modulated voice of this retired teacher and poet remains young and fresh.

Le Luy, 84, is known as the "Book King" of Dinh Le book street.

"It was so romantic to sit on the sidewalk selling books; it was so true to my soul".

Luy and Mao started their business in 1990. Mao used to be an employee of the Vietnam Book Publishing company, specializing in supervising book distribution in all provinces across Vietnam.

The old man’s eyes brightened as he spoke of Mao.

"My wife is excellent at evaluating books," he said.

When they started out selling books on the street, the couple had an acquaintance living on Dinh Le Street babysit their child. In a stroke of serendipity, they decided to buy a small apartment deep inside the fifth alley of this street, to live and store their books, having no idea that this move would transform the whole street.

"We kept selling books on the pavement, and then the customers gradually came into our house," said Luy as he reached out to take the teapot and refill our cups.

"At that time, the place down here (Dinh Le Street) was full of optical shops and drugstores. There were not many people around here actually."

After they opened their store, their neighbors decided to get in on the act. Gradually, through the years, more and more bookstores were established and the street became the premier destination for booklovers in Hanoi.

A photo of Le Luy and Pham Thi Mao, the founders of Mao bookstore, printed in a book about them.

Business boomed for the Mao Bookstore once their opus was published. "Almanach and World Cultures" was another milestone of the couple’s career. Publishing this encyclopedia (2,064 pages with contributions from 120 authors) was a huge challenge at the time, because no publishing house would take on the job. But the couple took a big chance and decided to go after it.

"Almanach and World Cultures" sold out its very first edition. Luy and Mao republished the book four more times, each time printing 5,000 copies. The book was delivered to all major cities in Vietnam and earned the couple royalty of three percent interest each month. Apart from the profit, the book also highlighted the bookstore, and marked a major step in its publishing operations.

Almanach and World Cultures, a giant encyclopedia, was another milestone of the couple’s career.

More than 400 books have been published by the Mao Bookstore, Luy told VnExpress International. Its fame prompted many writers to send their works to the bookstore for a chance to get published.

"We looked at the quality of the draft, then if we decided to publish it, we would pay them properly," Luy said. The published books were then shipped to bookshops in other cities where they would either pay or deliver some books they’d published to Luy, in a barter trade.

"They called this place the ‘nursing room’ for writers and translators."

The signboard in front of Mao bookstore.

When they were younger, Luy and his wife travelled abroad to collect valuable foreign books for publication. Sometimes, their luggage was nothing but books.

In 2003, they stopped publishing books because Mao fell sick. But Luy and his wife still kept the bookstore running. Their passion for books never faded. They still tried to find the most suitable books for their readers.

And today, after Mao passed away in 2017, Luy still keeps himself busy with his books. It is a way to remember his wife, too.

"When my wife was still alive, she always wanted to guarantee that everyone who came here could find and choose a book for their own."

Reading the future

In the old days, the Mao Bookstore was a regular rendezvous for book lovers, and it used to get so crowded that people didn’t have space to stand, even.

It’s very different now.

Dinh Le Street has kept pace with the city’s growth. The plethora of bookstores on the main street has made it more convenient for people to buy books there than to go all the way into the small alley and walk up the stairs to the Mao Bookstore.

The introduction of e-books has made a difference, too. With just a few swipes, people can easily find and read a book on their smartphones or tablets.

Luy is concerned about the change in reading habits among the youth.

"Young people are reading less in recent years and it’s not good for them at all. Even with the convenience of technology, they are still so lazy when it comes to reading. They prefer reading comics or cheap short news that don’t bring any knowledge.

A paranoma look into Mao bookstore at present.

"But I believe real books still have their own place in this era. Because the knowledge is always there, each time you look up at your shelf and see the books that you have read, they will remind and encourage you to read more. That’s a unique character an e-book cannot give you."

Luy calls the Mao Bookstore his "kingdom," one that he as no intention of leaving.

"To be honest with you, this is it for me. I’m not going anywhere. This is my end game."


Story by Bao Ngoc, Tuan Hoang

Photos by Tuan Hoang


By Bao Ngoc, Tuan Hoang