Why you should care
Because it could have been a taco joint.
I often get nostalgic about the two years I spent teaching English in Vietnam. I miss spending Mondays lazing on the beach drinking Ricard, and I miss taking my scooter out to Son Tra to look for endangered monkeys. I miss the sweet, salty pork broth that is bún chả. Most of all, I miss making the pilgrimage to a certain ramshackle bookstore.
Randy’s Book Xchange may only be the second-largest foreign language bookstore in Vietnam, but it’s undeniably the quirkiest. The stock of around 20,000 new and used titles in 30 languages fills more than half of Hawaii native Randy Slocum’s home in Hoi An. Once you’re done browsing the ground-floor selection, head upstairs (posing for a selfie on the classics-themed staircase en route) for more eclectic offerings. Customers can either buy books outright or receive cash discounts in exchange for their used books. “I try to make some cash out of every transaction,” says Slocum, 68, “but if a customer walks in with 12 good books and only wants to buy two, I’m not gonna say no … It’s darned hard to get quality stock out here.”
The shop opened “by accident” about 10 years ago.
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, chances are you’ll include Hoi An — the quaint riverside village that’s been enchanting visitors to Tonkin for centuries — on your itinerary. Once there, you’ll have to actively seek out Randy’s, which is located in an out-of-the-way island suburb devoid of tourists. You’ll know you’ve reached your destination when you see the store, though: The bricks on the garden wall are painted to look like books, and Slocum’s cat, Chili — “the local lothario” despite being “scar tissue from one end to the other” — will probably be hanging out on the porch. While Slocum himself is home most of the time, the store is open every day — Miss Xinh holds down the fort whenever her boss is “sleeping or having cocktails.”
The shop opened “by accident” about 10 years ago. Given mere months to live because of his bad heart, Slocum decided to travel the world. Not long after, in Hoi An, he fell terribly ill and paid doctors to run “every test under the sun.” By the time he’d been diagnosed with and cured of a stomach parasite (nothing to do with his heart), he was, he says, “too broke to live anywhere else.” His original idea was to open a taco shop (he even had some tortilla presses shipped), but when he realized there was a shortage not only of Mexican food but also books, the idea of standing behind a hot grill rapidly lost its appeal.
In addition to the standard best-sellers, Randy’s does a roaring trade in Southeast Asian titles like First They Killed My Father, Catfish and Mandala, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and — the current favorite — The Sympathizer. But almost more important are the musty tomes gathering dust on the shelves. The funny thing about a used bookstore is that probably 70 percent of the books will never sell, says Slocum. “But,” he adds, “if you don’t have those books, everyone thinks you have a shitty bookstore.”
Go There: Randy’s Book Xchange
- Directions: Take a xe om (motorbike taxi) to Cẩm Nam island and hop off at the corner of Hoàng Diệu and Lương Như Bích. Map.
- Hours: 8 a.m.–7 p.m., seven days a week (but someone will likely be around after 7 p.m.).
- Pro tip: Nearby Bánh mì Phượng has the world’s best sandwiches, according to Anthony Bourdain.
- Digital revolution: Techies, fret not: You can stock up on e-books and e-readers too.