Owner of ailing bookstore: 'I struggled before asking for help'

Owner of ailing bookstore: 'I struggled before asking for help'
FEELING THE HEAT: Mr Koh says he has not been drawing a salary for months and is dipping into his savings to survive.
PHOTO: The New Paper

The owner of a bookstore has taken the unusual step of posting a plea on Facebook to customers to help him through the economic slowdown.

Mr Anthony Koh, 42, who runs Booktique, an independent bookshop at CityLink Mall, wrote last Friday that the store was facing "continuous weakening sales", and that his recent effort to rent out the shop space was not helping much.

"If you like our shop and what we have been doing, please help us pull through this (sic) trying times. We are working with distributors and our mall management to help improve our sale (sic)," he added.

"We are NOT giving up Booktique, but we need help to tide us over till the quiet months are over."

In the post, Mr Koh also called on book lovers and customers to help Booktique by buying vouchers and books, or renting its space for art-related workshops and classes.

He had started his business by hosting small book fairs at cafes in 2013 before opening a pop-up store at The Cathay. He then closed that to open a new pop-up at CityLink in October 2014 and turned it into a permanent store in last July.

On Thursday, Mr Koh told The New Paper that he had hesitated for days before making the appeal. He has given himself a three-month deadline to stabilise the business or close down.

"I struggled with the intention to go online for help... I didn't want to give people the impression that the book trade is a sunset industry and that book sellers are fools," he said.

DISMAL SALES

"In the end, I decided that we need to tell people the core problems we face and our situation before we fall into debt."

Mr Koh said that sales have consistently dropped since last November. He described his last Christmas sales as "dismal", with takings falling by 50 per cent compared to 2014's festive season. Takings on a good month can reach low five figures and usually double that during festive seasons.

But the shop has been struggling to hit the five-figure mark of late, said Mr Koh, who declined to reveal the monthly rent for the 629 sq ft shop space. A check online shows that rent in the mall starts from about $12 per sq ft.

While blaming the slow economy and "weak" reading culture in Singapore for the dip in sales, Mr Koh also acknowledged that the gloomy climate is not unique to book retailers.

"I just want to be able to pay the rent, pay the book distributors and pay my part-timer. I don't need a salary as long as the bookstore can survive," said the bachelor.

He said he has not drawn a salary for months and has been surviving on his savings from his previous job at a copyright licensing agency.

"All retailers are not doing well. We didn't expect the economic downturn, but it is part and parcel of being in business. It's shape up or ship out."

While he is having restless nights, he insists that he is thinking of solutions, not worrying about the problems.

"My purpose and passion will not sway because of the poor economy," he said. "I am determined not to give up, and I want to focus my energy on improving the business and curating better books. But I don't want to go into debt, so hopefully we can stabilise soon."

Weighing in on Booktique's situation, Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon from National University of Singapore's business school said the shop appeals to a niche clientele which Mr Koh has to reach out to.

"Instead of just selling curated books, maybe he can organise discussion groups where this group can gather," she said.

"This might add value to his business. So besides buying books, the group can have a chat about it too."

Prof Ang suggested that Mr Koh consider raising prices to cover his costs, though it might turn some customers away, or moving to a cheaper location.

She said: "A cheaper place might be out of the way, but the inconvenience might be something that the niche clientele will be willing to bear."

Mr Koh said of the suggestions: "All her points are valid. But we are a young company, and we might not have enough followers or made enough of a name to move to an inconvenient area...

"I also can't just raise prices for the sake of riding out the bad economy. It is all a matter of give and take to find a balance that can keep us going."

I struggled with the intention to go online for help... I didn't want to give people the impression that the book trade is a sunset industry and that book sellers are fools.

tammei@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on February 27, 2016.
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