Old bookstores in Singapore which have stood the test of time

Old bookstores in Singapore which have stood the test of time
Mr Chew Ching Suaa, founder of Grassland Book Store.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Many lament today's sluggish book industry, but in the golden years of Singapore's book trade, bookshops flourished along North Bridge Road.

The flurry of bookstore closures in recent years prompted the Chou Sing Chu Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded by the group chief executive Chou Cheng Ngok of Popular Holdings, to collect the stories of 50 iconic bookshops in Passage Of Time: Singapore Bookstore Stories 1881 - 2016.

The history of the shops spans over a century - from Singapore's first bookstore, set up in 1881 at Raffles Place by European company Kelly & Walsh, to indie haven BooksActually in Tiong Bahru.

The book preserves bygone details such as how Everyman Book Centre in Selegie Road would display its books by pegging them to clotheslines strung across the store, and how banned-books haven Nan Tah Book Store in Middle Road drew regulars like political figures Devan Nair and Lim Chin Siong.

The book, which organises the stores by location, was published in English and Mandarin at the end of last year.

The Chou Sing Chu team spent four years hunting down the stories of the bookstores, many of which have closed down. They had been contemplating the project since major bookstores such as Borders and Page One shut down.

It was no easy task to track down the booksellers, many of whom are elderly and do not respond to calls or e-mail messages. They would sometimes spend hours outside a shop waiting for its reticent owner to show up. Others chased them away.

At moments, it felt like they were racing against time. One bookseller, Youth Book Company founder Chen Mong Chea, died at age 96, shortly after they interviewed him.

Chou Sing Chu executive director Ruth Cao, who is in her 40s, says: "People would tell us that for their grandchildren to see a bookstore, they'd have to go to a museum. They meant it as a joke, but it's a sad sentence.

"Someone has to document how all these bookstores contributed to the education of Singapore. If we don't do this project now, who will be left to do it?"

Books Kinokuniya store director Kenny Chan calls Passage Of Time "an invaluable document".

As for the future of the book trade in Singapore, he remains hopeful. "Where there are stories to tell, the book remains the perfect medium to tell them. It will never die."

oliviaho@sph.com.sg

Passage Of Time: Singapore Bookstore Stories 1881 - 2016 ($24.50) is available at major bookstores.

Humble beginnings in a carpark

Grassland Book Store started as a makeshift stall (left) at the carpark of Beauty World in 1966. Its founder, Mr Chew Ching Suaa (second from far left) is 18 years old in the photo.Photo: Courtesy of Chew Ching Suaa

GRASSLAND BOOK STORE

Founded in 1966 B1-21 Beauty World Centre, 144 Upper Bukit Timah Road

Say "Grassland" and most Singaporeans would think of the luxury coach operator, but the name was first borne by a tiny book stall outside Beauty World in the 1960s.

The Grassland Book Store, now housed at the basement of Beauty World Centre, was founded by Mr Chew Ching Suaa, who also runs the larger and more well-known Grassland Express tour company.

The avid reader started the book stall in the carpark outside Beauty World mall after he was expelled from Chinese High Schoolfor student activism when he was 18.

In the 1960s, the carpark hosted a bustling night market of makeshift stalls capped by zinc roofs.

He borrowed $1,300 from his father and rented two parking spaces for $50 a month, later roping in his younger brother, Eng Kong, to help.

"On the first day, I sold just a pencil and an eraser," says Mr Chew, 70, in Mandarin. He leafs through a yellowed accounts book and points at the entry on Nov 1, 1966 - a meagre 25 cents earned.

Thankfully, business picked up. During the bookshop's heyday in the 1970s, it stocked the latest titles from Chinese publishers and students flocked to it after school.

"The floor around the stall would be occupied by kids, reading," Mr Chew says. He would let them be. "When I was a child, all I wanted was to read all day and would get my ears pulled for it."

Grassland became known for its sale of banned books, such as Shi Nuo's novel, The Long March, about the military retreat undertaken in the 1930s by the Red Army of China's Communist Party, which was prohibited in Malaysia.

In 1984, Mr Chew decided to move indoors into Beauty World Centre, largely because the carpark kept catching fire. By then, there had been 13 outbreaks of fire, caused by the overwhelming number of electricity cables between stalls.

Though the bookshop escaped the flames each time, the fires were harrowing experiences. "We had to grab the cash - if we had time, the fountain pens too - throw them all in a plastic bag and run for our lives."

During the move, he stored about 40 boxes of literature at a friend's house. Later, to his horror, he discovered they had been eaten by termites. "I would have cried," he says, "but I could not find the tears."

Today, Grassland relies mostly on stationery for sales. Mr Chew, who set up Grassland Express in 1989 so the family could expand into the tourism industry, still manages the store from time to time, along with his brothers and nephew.

"I like to see the small children in the shop," says Mr Chew, who has two sons and a daughter, aged 37 to 43. "They make me feel young again."

Selling flat to set up store

Owner of Basheer Graphic Books, Mr Abdul Nasser, promotes the store’s rare books and events on its Facebook page.Photo: The Straits Times

BASHEER GRAPHIC BOOKS

Founded in 1985 04-19 Bras Basah Complex, 231 Bain Street

To expand his bookstore, Mr Abdul Nasser sold his three-room flat in 1995 and moved his family into a rental flat.

The 52-year-old needed to raise $120,000 to get direct tenancy at his dream location at Bras Basah Complex, where the book business his father started out of a suitcase would finally find a home.

Basheer Graphic Books, which Mr Abdul Nasser's father, Mr Basheer Ahamed, began in 1985, is an iconic name in the Singapore design community.

"If I had not sold my flat, I would have been out of business long ago," he says.

It took four years for the father of three to move out of the rental flat and eight years to recoup the money he spent on securing Basheer's future.

He was co-opted into the book trade at the age of 19 by his father, who made him carry heavy suitcases stuffed with books that covered topics from design to architecture.

"My muscles became so thick," he recalls. "My friends joked that I was a bodybuilder."

In 1992, they established a brick- and-mortar store in Bras Basah and became known for their ability to get hold of rare art and design books not found in mainstream stores.

Times are tougher now for Basheer in the era of e-commerce - with sales half of what it used to be five years ago.

At its peak, it had seven outlets across the region. But in the past five years, it closed five of its stores, with its Hong Kong branch shuttering in December last year due to low sales and high rental. Apart from its Singapore store, it retains an outlet in Kuala Lumpur.

Customers say it would be a pity to lose Basheer. Lasalle fashion student Lucas Goh, 21, says: "It stocks magazines such as Dazed And Confused that we don't see in places like Kinokuniya, but that we need to refer to for inspiration."

Mr Abdul Nasser is determined to push on, increasing Basheer's social media presence - its Facebook page has close to 65,000 "likes" - to better promote its rare books and events.

He says: "I remember many of the fashion and fine arts students coming here through the years and I would take pity on them and sell them books on credit.

"Now, their sons and daughters have become my customers. I aim to do one more cycle - to sell to their grandchildren."

Knowing the Malay community's needs

Mr Abdul Aziz Yusof, 62, is the third-generation owner of Kedai Haji Hashim.Photo: The Straits Times

KEDAI HAJI HASHIM

Founded in 1922 01-1051, Joo Chiat Complex, Geylang Serai

With its bright fluorescent lights and mini-fridge of soft drinks, Kedai Haji Hashim could be mistaken by a passer-by for a provision store.

But past the shelves of stationery and perfume are rows and rows of books - from Malay textbooks to religious manuals to hardcover tomes across which flow gilded Arabic script.

The pioneer Malay bookstore, which is almost a century old, is run by Mr Abdul Aziz Yusof, 62, its third-generation owner.

Its first iteration was opened in Arab Street in 1922 by his grandfather, merchant Haji Hashim Haji Abdullah, who came from an Indonesian family with literary leanings.

Kedai Haji Hashim’s founder Haji Hashim Haji Abdullah.Photo: Kedai Haji Hashim

At its height, the store supplied textbooks to Malay schools and madrasahs, with two other branches in Geylang Serai and Onan Road. It also published many of its own titles.

Today, the Joo Chiat Complex outlet is the only store remaining. Mr Abdul Aziz cites the drop in demand from Malay schools as the main reason behind the closure of the other outlets.

Passage Of Time, a new book chronicling the stories of various pioneer bookstores in Singapore, records some of the colourful anecdotes of the Hashim family.

During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, book sales were expectedly bad, but things were made worse when their landlord decided to stop leasing out the space - forcing them to buy it.

Mr Hashim's wife had to pawn her gold to do so, while their three eldest children had to sell food in the streets of Kampong Glam to boost earnings. Things were salvaged in part by the arrival of Malayan troops, who bought the Hari Raya greeting cards that were handmade in the store.

Mr Abdul Aziz took over the Joo Chiat bookstore from his father in 1999. While the bookstore has since diversified to sell stationery and provide photocopying services, its main product remains books.

Mr Abdul Aziz, who has a 22-year-old son, says: "I don't feel competition from online. I know what the Malay community wants.

Former meeting place for migrants

Mr Billy Goh runs Teo Chew Book Store with his wife Angela Chan and mother Lim Ah Lak.Photo: The Straits Times

TEO CHEW BOOK STORE

Founded in 1937, 34 Upper Cross Street, 02-134

In a glass case in Teo Chew Book Store, there is a row of martial arts novels and almanacs that date back to the 1920s.

Each slim yellowed volume could be worth hundreds of dollars, but owner Billy Goh says he will not sell them. "These are memories I want to preserve," he says in Mandarin.

Mr Goh, 59, is the third-generation owner of the 80-year-old Chinatown shop.

It was founded in New Market Road by Mr Goh's granduncle and his friend, and moved to its current premises in 1975 while under his father's charge.

In its early days, the store was a gathering place for the Teochew migrant community in Singapore, who would go in to leaf through books such as the Chaozhou Literature Series - which covered Teochew topics such as wartime history, folk literature and dialects - or shop for wedding paraphernalia such as silk and candles.

Mr Goh, who grew up in the shop, remembers how customers would buy traditional musical instruments such as the erhu, with which they would give impromptu performances.

After school, he would put his bag in the shop and help his father pick up groceries for regular customers from surrounding stores.

Today, Mr Goh runs the store with his wife Angela Chan, 56, and mother Lim Ah Lak, who, at the age of 82, still does the accounts in the store every day.

His three sons, aged 26 to 31, are not interested in taking over the business. "They want jobs in which you can take leave," says Mr Goh, who takes only Sundays off.

The shop now sells mostly stationery to office workers and residents in the area, as well as oddities such as antique cameras and radios.

"These are changing times," he says. "Everything can be found on the Internet.

"Just because people don't buy books does not mean they've stopped reading. I think they read differently now.

"For me, the feel of a physical book is always special."


This article was first published on Feb 5, 2017.
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