The bounty of Katmandu: books

Katmandu is an exotic-sounding place, but what it reminds her of most is reading.

I have always been afraid of running out of things to read. It's not rational, but even as a child, I needed a tottering stack of library books to make me feel secure, to reassure me that there would always be another book waiting. It was not until I was in my early 20s that I actually faced the prospect of a briefly bookless life.

I had arrived in Katmandu, Nepal, expecting to find my friend Annie waiting for me. Instead, I found a note telling me she was walking a Nepali friend to her village and wouldn't be back for at least a week. The timing was also not in my favor: It was April 1990, just weeks after the revolution, and the city was tense. There was a nightly curfew, sunset to sunrise. Alone in my hotel room at night, I read every book I'd brought with me in the first three days. Mild panic ensued.

I was saved from despair by my discovery of the Tantric Books Shop in Thamel, the hippie traveler neighborhood near my hotel. Immediately upon entering, I found myself transported to a familiar and beloved world – shelf after packed shelf of fiction from every English-speaking country I could name, not to mention shelves of books in Spanish, Hebrew, and Japanese.

Then everything changed for me. I may have been alone in Katmandu and nervous about the revolution, but inside the bookshop I was happily occupied and thrilled with possibilities. There were other things I might have to worry about, but books were no longer one of them.

I chose carefully that first afternoon, finding a copy of Mary McCarthy's "The Group" for 45 Nepali rupees. I passed it on to Annie to read when she finally returned, and it still sits on my shelf today, the heart-shaped stamp from the Tantric Books Shop faded but clear.

I've returned to Katmandu twice since then, and I have always made sure to save time for a leisurely survey of the bookshops. I've lived in India, which is a fabulous place to buy new books, but Katmandu wins hands down for the best used-book market I've ever encountered. So many international travelers move through Katmandu, and nearly all of them bring books, which they often sell or trade when they're done. Even in the small radius of Thamel, there is enough business for multiple stores to thrive. I've spent hours moving from the Nightingale Book Shop to the Walden Book House and the Barnes and Noble Book House (no relation to the US bookseller), saving time for the Tantric Books Shop, for old time's sake.

I love Katmandu for its wealth of books, but I also love the seeming unlikeliness of that, which is part of the charm. Outside in the streets, Nepalis, Tibetans, Indians, and Westerners all mingle. Temple bells ring, prayer flags flutter. The streets teem with men on bicycles, and when the sky is clear, hints of high Himalayan peaks are visible. You are, perhaps, as far from home as you can get without starting to come back the other way. But inside the many bookshops, the shelves are lined with paperbacks bearing familiar names, stories waiting to be discovered. And the books aren't just the new, pristine, and fashionable, but books that other travelers have left behind, books that have a history of their own. The wealth of options is so great, you can lose yourself for hours just choosing.

In my house in America, my shelves are crowded. Books pile up on the floor and teeter in stacks. If I bought no more books, I could still spend years reading everything I own that I have not yet read.

And yet, if I were to land in Katmandu tomorrow, I know what I would do. I might fortify myself first at Mike's Breakfast Place or the Fire and Ice Pizzeria; I might take an invigorating walk around the Boudhanath Stupa. But in the end, I would be back in Thamel, spending happy hours in the bookshops, books accumulating on the floor beside me, without a worry as to how I would get them home or when I might read them. If I never return to Katmandu, I will still think of it, fondly and gratefully, as a place where there will always be something new to read.

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