37th Street, a narrow street in Kyauktada township downtown Yangon, has experienced tremendous cultural and social changes over the last 5 years.
With colourful walls and weather-beaten pavements, several roadside bookstalls have become a living part of this modest street. Every morning from 9 to 11, roadside bookstalls on 37th Street open their door in succession, at the same time peddlers begin to stack books on makeshift shelves or spread them on the road.
Harsh media censorship under the former military regime covered books on various subjects - not only newspapers or political books, but also entertainment, sports, and even the lottery. Yet, since June 2011, with the first effects of political reform, censorship of publications has gradually relaxed.
“Now it’s better, change has taken place step by step,” says one college student.
A silent witness to these difficult years, Bagan book house, one of the most famous bookstores in Yangon, was established in 1976.
A young man at that time, Htay Aung dreamed of adventures far away from home, from the political instability and pressure imposed by the military government. A twist of fate persuaded him to join his father in opening Bagan Book House instead.
“Collecting books is my father’s hobby.” Htay Aung says, “My Dad collected books by various methods.” But most of the books in his store are ‘photocopies’.
In fact, in Myanmar, ‘photocopies’ are widespread, as many people do not consider them as piracy.
Another challenge for booksellers is the fact that many young Myanmar people have become accustomed to Ebook reading.
“Many people now like reading on Facebook, readers who choose to come to bookstores are gradually declining,” says the daughter of New Vision Book shopkeeper.
Happily, some people still insist on visiting bookstores on a daily basis. They want to enjoy the rare and special pleasure of visiting these places built by driven men over hard times and under a difficult political context.
“I like the feeling of touching paper, it’s very cool,” says the college student.
After harsh censorship, Myanmar’s booksellers now face so many new challenges. Hiding away from the frenzied street of downtown Yangon with its car horns one has to wonder what the future will be for this great street.