Three independent bookshops show their survival skills in Kuala Lumpur.
Much has been said about the demise of small, independent bookshops, brought about by the rise of digital books and the pervasiveness of giant enterprises such as Amazon and big commercial retailers, all fighting for the attention of readers, whose numbers are declining.
In Malaysia, where reading is not commonly regarded as a major past-time, independent bookshops have an even harder time surviving, much less thriving. However, not all are giving in to the naysaying and throwing in the towel, not when they have so much passion for the printed word and want to keep it alive.
Newcomer Lit Books has just celebrated its first anniversary. Former corporate consultant and lover of books, Fong Min Hun, has long dreamed of having his own bookshop. Having come to a career crossroads (his wife and partner, Elaine Lau, was a journalist), he decided this was the time to open one. The shop, located in a quiet suburb away from the city centre, offers a carefully curated selection of literary and non-fiction books alongside a café and a social environment.
Personalisation is a huge factor in their business. When a customer walks in through the door, either Fong or Lau greets them with a cheery hello and a little chat. “We try to find out where a person’s interests lie and recommend something that they would enjoy,” said Fong. They are the bookish version of Jeeves, having read more than half of the titles that they stock, with enough working knowledge of the rest to make recommendations.
Fong and Lau have tried to create a community hub within the bookshop, organising regular events and activities. Besides author talks and literary quiz nights, they’ve teamed up with business radio station BFM 89.9 to do a monthly live recording of a book programme called Bookmark as well as hosted a one-off jazz night with the Malaysian Philharmonic Society featuring original music inspired by Haruki Murakami’s writings. Always open to ideas and suggestions, they recently held a live storytelling night, proposed to them by a trio made up of a comedian, a writer and a poet.
Address: P-01-11 Tropicana Avenue, 12, Persiaran Tropicana, Tropicana Golf & Country Resort, 47410 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Nazir Harith Fadzilah went against the commercial grain by setting up a niche bookshop that focuses on secondhand and new books on history, philosophy, literature and the arts. If you’re after an out-of-print book about the Sumatran language and power dynamics, this is probably a good place to start looking.
“The idea (behind Tintabudi) actually is just to sell books that I’m interested in reading,” he said; that meant letting go of half of his personal collection as he was getting the bookshop off the ground. “Admittedly, it was hard to part with my own books, but it was a necessary step.”
A self-professed late reader, Nazir got hooked on reading and collecting books when he was studying for his engineering degree in Melbourne, Australia, and was exposed to its secondhand book culture. After graduating and returning to Malaysia, he dove right into setting up Tintabudi in Ipoh, a city to the north. The bookshop has since moved to the buzzy creative space Zhongshan Building in Kuala Lumpur, joining a community of other like-minded businesses such as an art gallery, a record store and a historical design archive centre.
Having a physical space was important to Nazir. “For a bookshop, a good range of titles and interaction with the customer are important aspects that one has to keep improving on. This is why we prefer having a physical space as opposed to operating online. Face-to-face interactions have helped us in many ways,” noted Nazir, who tries to run fortnightly reading events and talks. He utilises social media to promote new books that are available in the store as well as upcoming events.
So far, so good. Tintabudi continues to hum along nicely with a loyal and enthusiastic following. “I think we often underestimate the size of (Malaysian) readership. We have a lot of silent readers that read the sort of books that we offer,” said Nazir.
Address: 80, Jalan Rotan, Kampung Attap, 50460 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur
When it comes to longevity, Silverfish Books is the granddaddy of independent bookshops. Opened in 1999, it has survived economic downturns and several location changes to celebrate its 19th anniversary in June this year. “I can hardly believe that we have been around for so long,” mused owner Raman Krishnan.
His first tip for survival? Differentiation.
“Why should shoppers patronise your business and not another? The irony is that most booksellers don’t know what they are selling,” he said. “Bookshop owners need to know who they are, what they like, and differentiate, not just change the décor. Every bookshop has to be unique, with its own character and not succumb to sameness.”
His second: Read the market and move quickly in response to it.
When Silverfish was first started in 1999, there were no major bookshop retailers in Kuala Lumpur. Borders was only available in Singapore. When retailers started flooding the market, Raman responded by focusing on books that they didn’t sell, like Malaysian English-language authors, and held out. His gamble paid off; these days, Silverfish is one of the top sources for Malaysian books in English in Kuala Lumpur with a set of regular customers.
A big supporter of the local literary scene in the English language, Raman not only sells the books, he publishes known and unknown writers under the Silverfish Books brand. Some of the fresh wordsmiths are the product of his successful writing programme.
To Raman, having a bookshop isn’t just about selling books; it is about the spreading of knowledge and serving a community. He was upset when a customer from the United States told him she was closing her bookshop due to competition and launched into a passionate speech about fighting the good fight:
“Serve your village, your town, your county. Find, encourage and develop writers among them. Publish them. Co-publish with them. Focus on local interests. Hold events in your shop. Create a local community. Create a buzz. Locate a local digital printer, designer, illustrators. Do small initial print runs. Become a destination. Forget distributors. Forget Amazon. Live free and enjoy the ride. But for God’s sake, don’t close your shop.”
Address: Bangsar Village, 20-2F, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur