Closing a chapter of childhood

Mrs Margaret Zhang (in black), wife of EMF Bookstore's sole proprietor Eddie Zhang, running EMF Bookstore at Holland Road Shopping Centre in the late 1980s.

When does childhood end? I felt a little death this week hearing of the closure of a favourite bookstore in Holland Road.

On Thursday, EMF Bookstore downs the shutters on its 27-year-old outlet in Holland Road Shopping Centre. This book-packed nook was, 20 years ago, a haven for cash-strapped students like me.

We could rent and read books not easily available in libraries, or too expensive to buy outright, recouping most of our outlay when each title was returned. The variety of worlds housed on the shelves offered a comforting escape from the reality of term papers and pimples, and fostered a society of student bookworms who, seeking solitude, found friends.

I stood in the store last week between the rows of books now further discounted and saw a romance novel I read and returned almost a decade ago, the stamps of my use in fading red on an inner page. Cheap at $1 but I do not care to re-read it.

At home, I trailed my fingers along newer acquisitions from the store and moved back through time to touch worn, lined spines bought with pocket money saved from denying myself treats at lunch and tea. Bride Of The Slime Monster by Craig Shaw Gardener - hilarious, worth it. Vampire Junction by S.P. Somtow - unforgettable and therefore I'll never read it again. Too late to return it.

Childhood never quite ended for me. The confident, mature, adult persona I inhabit is shored up by pillars constructed in my youth, pillars quietly supportive and so familiar that I realise their importance only when they are pulled away.

These are some of the pillars holding up my world: my parents' hugs, the soft book scent of libraries and favourite bookstores which cocooned me even as the contents enlightened and nurtured.

Back in the old bookstore, taking advantage of the closing sale discount, I moved through fantasy and romance and turned the corner into the children's section. Among the Darren Shan horror stories, I chanced upon a new book by Alan Garner. What a lovely surprise to find alive and writing this British author, whose tales of dwarves and wizards and ancient myths alive in 1950s English countryside enchanted my mother, who then passed that love down to me.

Her copies of Garner's earliest books, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon Of Gomrath, disintegrated long ago, as I pored relentlessly over the soft paper, immersed in the adventures of a brother and sister caught up in a titanic clash of magic versus rising modernity. Loving Garner's lyrical blend of fact and fantasy, some years ago, I acquired new copies of those books, intending to pass them down to my children someday.

It was a delightful gift to find that the author, 80 this year, had written a third novel continuing the adventures of Colin and Susan. How appropriate that I should find a continuation of a childhood love in the bookstore that also nourished my youth.

Boneland is a slim book, 160 pages long, and I had nearly finished it before reaching home. Reading the last page, I tucked it away in a dark corner of an over-full book shelf, loving and hating it in equal measure. For Boneland is a book about an aged scientist named Colin, for whom starlight is now a clinical wonder, to be pierced by telescopes and Newtonian maths. Colin seeks his missing sister Susan, and works through his loss with a kindly psychiatrist who informs him that all the sibling's old adventures with ancient magic could have been only make-believe, no matter how real they seemed.

How appropriate to find this book about the death of childhood in a bookstore I loved as a teen, as it closes down.

It is only a story. It is only a store. But stories are how we create and define ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, and this bookstore held so many of my stories.

This is the bookstore where I first encountered the story that irrevocably cemented my belief in feminism, that told me women were heroes and did not have to define themselves by men (The Gate To Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper). This is the bookstore where I could afford a book to charm my overworked parents back into the love of reading (The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey).

This is the store of memories I share with classmates and university friends, all of whom still have at least one paperback novel with a long-ago date stamped on it, marking the final day of return.

This bookstore is part of my life's story and I mourn its closing because it is a tangible reminder of the tales I contain. I would have liked to keep taking friends and family to it, but all stories end.

All stories end but they also go on as long as we remember them.

The generation after me will find its own.

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