Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Where to Buy your Books in Bali

Bookstore shelves, Kuala Lumpur Airport

You can tell a lot about a place from its bookstores. Skim the shelves and you will get a good impression of the passions and the phobias of those around you. I’ve always been a book-obsessed geek but now that I’ve been published, browsing in bookstores counts as work too.

Here’s a selection from my recent travels:

The much-touted destination of Ubud was a disappointment from the moment I stepped into the street. Hustlers, bad paintings, and crumbling sidewalks jostled for attention from middle-aged European tourists. The bookstores were similarly disappointing, aside from Ganesha Books, which had a reasonable selection of new and used books.

Amed Beach is a fishing village that sprawls along the east coast of Bali, considered a well-kept secret for those looking to escape crowded tourist spots. It draws an assortment of hippies, rastas, and creative travelers like my neighbors who played Klezmer music on their steel banjos every afternoon at the beach. The Dutch owner of GaneshAmed hotel and bookstore has an eccentric library of old and obscure books on Bali/Indonesia and lends them out for a mere 30,000 rupiah each (around US$3). They also boasted the best selection of first edition paperbacks from dead travelwriters I’ve seen in awhile. I picked up copies of Stevenson’s The Suicide Club/Jekyll and Hyde, Graham Green’s Honorary Consul, Somerset Maugham’s The Sinners, and Thesinger’s Arabian Sands.

Candi Dasa is a fading beach town with a disappearing beach. Locals destroyed the coral reefs during construction of the area’s many resorts, and efforts are now belatedly recreating some of what was lost. The tourists there have similarly unimaginative taste in reading: the town’s bookstores are filled with cheap cookbooks and beach-reading paperbacks in assorted languages.

Denpasar Airport barely stocked any books at all, anywhere. I searched a dozen souvenir stores and found only one which sold a fraction of the books available in Kuala Lumpur. Still I picked up a copy of the bizarre “novel”/autobiography Country of Origin by the colonist-turned-Rive Gauche socialist, E. du Perron. This Periplus edition had been translated from [deadly dull?] Dutch into dreadful English but is an unusual portrait of early 20th century Indonesia.

So if you’re headed to Bali, you’re best off bringing your own books – or, better yet, writing your own tribute to the place while there.

Bonus: KL [In the Kuala Lumpur International Airport the AirAsia budget airline terminal, some of my fellow travelers had a touch of anti-Semitism (note The International Jew by Henry Ford – yes, that Ford) and a taste for trashy horror (Gravedigger’s Kiss and 44 Cemetary Road by Malaysian author Tunku Halim). Their travel section was confined to Lonely Planet paperbacks – not a single work of travel literature to be found in the place. Plenty of business books, advice on feng shui, and managing stress and nutrition to round out the reading of your overworked international businessman-on-a-budget.]

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