EL PAIS

Is This The Final Chapter For World's Iconic Bookshops?

From Madrid to Cork to Shanghai, some of the most revered old bookshops are closing doors as they face pressure from big chains and e-readers. But our bookworm writer found some small signs of hope.

Still around ... for now?
Still around ... for now?
Benjamin Witte

-Essay-

PARIS — A week or so before Christmas, I decided to take advantage of a quick in-and-out visit to Paris to visit one of the city's most iconic expat establishments: The Shakespeare and Company bookstore in the Latin Quarter.

A stormy night had just fallen and the temps weren't too far above freezing as I trudged across the Seine, through wind and rain, to where I expected to find the famous English-language gathering spot. But when I got there, the bookshop — famous among other things for cameos in films like Before Sunset (2004) and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011) — was nowhere to be found.

That's when it occurred to me that the venerable old locale had perhaps closed down. "Noooo," I lamented. "Say it ain't so." But yes, surely I read something to that effect, I thought. Or did I? Befuddled and very cold, I ducked under an awning and, with numb fingers, fumbled around in my pocket for my phone.

A homeless man glanced at me sideways as I punched the words "Shakespeare and Company" onto the wet screen and then … Yes, there it was, about a block east of my current location, according to Google Maps. Duh. Slinking back into the rain, my collar turned up, I ventured on and, within a few minutes, found myself at last in front of the bookshop — along with about 20 other people waiting in line for a chance to enter.

Too wet and chilled to wait (the other would-be customers had umbrellas), I aborted my mission and headed back across the river to the warmth and shelter of the Châtelet metro station, but with the satisfaction that all was right again with the world. Yes, I thought, at least in this one important case, Amazon, digital reader devices, big-box retailers like Barnes & Noble and all the other shifting currents of our modern world didn't conspire to kill yet another classic bookshop.

Closing shop

But maybe it's just a matter of time, as Spain's El País reminded me this week. In the historic center of Madrid, I was sad to discover, one of the city's oldest and most beloved bookshops — Nicolás Moya Librería Médica — will soon be shutting its doors after more than 150 years.

Established in 1862 and located just a few meters from the Puerta del Sol, the family-owned store specializes in books on medicine, agriculture, veterinary sciences, and navigation. Its founder, Nicolás Moya (born in 1838) wasn't even an adult yet when he first began selling medical texts to students at a nearby training school for surgeons. Later the shop would become a favorite haunt for a number of well-known doctors, including Nobel Prize-winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), with whom Moya became friends.

All that for what?

But all these years later, the Moya family now says they can no longer make ends meet. "And all that for what? So they can put in a Zara, a McDonald's, or one of these other establishments that eat everything up," Salvador García, a neighbor, told El País. "It's so sad. I've bought a ton of books here since I was a student."

Sadly, the demise of the Nicolás Moya shop is part of a well-documented and globe-spanning trend, as independent booksellers across the globe struggle to compete with online retailers and large chains.

Just over two years ago, a beloved bookshop in Cork City, Ireland — Liam Ruiséal's — celebrated its centennial. A year after that, however, the Ruiséal family announced that they would be closing their doors, the Irish Examiner reported. "The recent economic downturn was also a contributing factor," according to a statement by the family. "As a family business, with over 100 years' history in Cork City, it was a difficult and emotional decision for us."

Photo: William Murphy

On the other side of the planet, the Tilley family in Launceston, Tasmania, made a similarly "heartbreaking" decision in early 2017 when they decided to shutter the more than 170-year-old Birchalls, Australia's longest surviving bookshop, according to the local paper The Examiner.

And exactly one year later, the "best-known liberal" bookshop in Shanghai, the Jifeng Bookstore, announced that it, too, would be closing its doors, albeit due to political rather than economic pressures, the South China Morning Post reported last year.

The authorities are more concerned about political stability.

"Jifeng's impending closure was in line with a series of moves by the Chinese authorities to tighten ideological control," a source told the Hong Kong-based, English-language newspaper. "The authorities are more concerned about political stability," he said. "They don't want to see freer social or cultural events."

Happy endings

More recently still, the last surviving used bookstore in New York City's Upper West Side, Westsider Books, gave word that it would also soon close, much to the chagrin of neighbors and employees. "It's a big surprise," shop worker David told the West Side Rag in early January. "Though on the other hand, I'm not surprised. Everyone's having trouble, even Barnes & Noble."

David is right — if that's any solace: Big chain booksellers like Barnes & Noble, which contributed to so many independent shops going belly up (at least in the United States), are also "floundering" these days, the New York Times reported last year. Earlier in the decade, one of Barnes & Noble's biggest competitors, Border's Books, officially went bust.

But taking things back to the Upper West Side: Here, I'm happy to say, is a bit of good news to report. Like my confusion over the fate of Shakespeare and Company in Paris, it turns out that there's a twist to the story of Westsider Books (which, coincidentally, had its own Woody-Allen-film cameo — in Fading Gigolo, 2013).

Thanks to a last-minute fundraising campaign that reached the do-or-die goal of $50,000, the neighborhood fixture will be staying put. It's "the ultimate comeback story," the West Side Rag reported. How's that for poetic justice?

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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