I arrived in Chiang Mai after a long day of travelling. I had picked up a cold and was feeling generally a bit sorry for myself. I had been looking forward to Chiang Mai because of all the amazing things I’d heard about it, but didn’t immediately warm to the city. That is until I found Backstreet Books.
Located just outside the old town, a stone’s throw from Tha Phae Gate, it was conveniently close to my hostel – don’t I choose my accommodation well?
It looks a bit like an old warehouse from the outside but I knew I’d love it as soon as I saw the books lined up on shelves and piled up on tables at the entrance.
Backstreet Books was like an oasis for me in a chaotic, smoky, stressful city where I always seemed to be getting lost! Well, I didn’t get lost browsing this bookshop, unless it was lost in the world of books.
Walking past the history and current affairs section at the entrance, I headed straight to the back of the shop where I found shelves upon shelves of biographies and autobiographies. But not the handful that you usually find in an English bookshop abroad, this one has lots of very interesting titles.
Perfect for a backpacker like me, there is also a generous travel writing section. Chiang Mai attracts travellers from all over the world and they all seem to have great taste! I saw many books that are in my reading wish list (everything by Paul Theroux) and some books that I already treasure, including Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis.
I was also interested to see a number of shelves with the label ‘Irish Literature’ next to the poetry section. I considered buying something by Colm Tóibín, I’ve been recommended his writing. And I noticed an Edna O’Brien I’ve got on my wish list. I hadn’t seen half the shop yet and there was already a ‘too many books, not enough room in my backpack’ situation!
Non-English readers should make their way upstairs where they will find books in a large variety of languages.
There’s also a small room dedicated to plays and literary criticism. I was particularly intrigued by a book called Where was Rebecca Shot?: Puzzles, Curiosities and Conundrums in Modern Fiction by John Sutherland which looks like a fun read.
Most of the upstairs has been taken over with non-fiction books on shelves, tables and even piled up on the floor. Subjects include (to name just a few); music, paranormal, health, feminism, erotic (I noticed quite a few variations of the Karma Sutra), animals, cooking, sport, witchcraft, adventure, LGBT, true crime, arts and crafts, architecture (where I found a dusty copy of Street Lettering of the British Isles – I’m not sure why anyone in Chiang Mai would be interested in that!) and shelves filled with books about tattoos.
Making my way back down the stairs (which are surrounded by some colourful posters – just what I like to see in a bookshop!) I spent quite some time looking through more non-fiction. Backstreet Books really does have an extensive selection of non-fiction. I found some interesting titles which I may look up in the future, but seemed a bit too serious for a holiday read. Can anyone recommend The City by Paul Ferris or The Aristos by John Fowles?
Finally I came to the fiction section which takes up almost half of the downstairs and is also sorted into genres. There’s plenty of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, as well as general fiction. Here, after a lot of deliberation, I chose to swap Helen Dunmore’s The Lie for a half priced copy of Doctor Slaughter by Paul Theroux.
Backstreet Books will trade books, or at least give you a discount, so bring along finished books if you visit.
Backstreet Books isn’t a beautiful bookshop, but it’s got so much choice and some thought has been put into it. It feels like it must be owned by a proper book lover!
You can find Backstreet Books on Chang Moi Kao Road.
Here’s their Facebook page (although it doesn’t look like they often update in English).