In this four-part series Turning Pages, we get a pulse on the literary scene in Singapore and speak to some local authors, publishers and bookstore owners to find out their take on the reading culture in Singapore.
Prologue: Shelving the Big Bookstores
News of its departure saddened many. Rows and rows of bookshelves used to stand proud, seemingly to welcome all who passed by Orchard Road to the abode of books. Borders, an institution that many have developed an affinity for over the years, pulled down its shutters at Wheelock Place last August. Their second and only remaining outlet at Parkway Parade followed suit just a month later.
Local book retailer Page One wasn't spared either. They announced their closure this year and eventually ended their stint at their 28,000 square feet outlet in VivoCity early February. The closures leave Kinokuniya and MPH bookstores the only surviving mega bookstores in Singapore.
Admittedly, Borders was usually my go-to place while waiting for a friend who was late or when we had some time to spare before a movie at Shaw Lido theatre nearby. Browsing through expensive magazines, checking out Oprah's recommendations on the shelves and eventually leaving the outlet with but only a couple of pens and files from Paperchase, their in-house stationary label.
So perhaps it isn't a huge surprise that these stores eventually folded, given my buying habits (or lack thereof), which could be representative of some others. I couldn't quite place what stopped me (and maybe others) from buying a book from these major bookstores, despite them being havens for books, with never ending aisles of shelves neatly labeled from fiction mystery to non-fiction travel. But I found my answer when I headed to a couple of indie bookstores and realized what have been missing in these retail giants all these years.
Walking into Woods in the Books evokes feelings of nostalgia -- of mornings spent sprawled on the floor as a child, colouring the illustrations of storybooks. Intimate and cosy, this picture bookstore located at indie hotspot Ann Siang, feels almost like a child’s bedroom.
The store exudes warmth and charm quite unlike the traditional big bookshops. Selling primarily picture books, the store also carries local publication, painted postcards and stuffed toys made by the owner of the store, Mike Foo.
“We wanted it (the experience at the bookstore) to be very personalised and not (become) a chain store that you can find in every mall in Singapore,” explains Shannon Ong, the co-owner.
A friendly giraffe greets you at the entrance of Woods in the Books.
Elaborate illustrations of dinosaurs and magical worlds adorn the covers of the books that are lined on the shelves of the quaint picture bookstore. Amidst the myriad of bright colours emanating from the books, reveals a few familiar titles like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Explains Shannon, on the appeal of picture books: ““It’s a different experience. It’s an intricate literature form (about) how the author and illustrator weave the pictures and words together to form a beautiful story.”
Sometimes, picture books go beyond bold colours and eye-catching illustrations. Probe deeper and you might delve into philosophy and existentialism. Shannon’s personal favourite, The Missing Piece by Silverstein for example, convey the meaning of true happiness through its minimalistic black and white illustrations.
Inside the brightly-lit picture bookstore
The bookshop itself, seems to be telling a story with mobiles dancing, self-made stuffed toys lining the shelves and painted wall murals that seemingly come right out of the books -- a far cry from the white washed walls and corporate coldness that chain book stores offer.
Another independent bookstore that offers almost the same comfort and intimacy is Littered with Books. Spanning two storeys, this 18-month-old bookstore is located at Duxton, within walking distance from Woods in the Books.
“Our shelves carry titles that are familiar as well as those which are different. The store is a product of a collective passion, which we hope to share. We want to create a comfortable and inspiring environment for our customers,” reveals Director of Littered with Books, Sheela Moorthy.
A look inside Littered with Books, located at Duxton.
And the store is certainly nothing short of a “comfortable and inspiring environment”. Brightly coloured sofas. Neatly-lined books. Even the decoration is well thought of, with the mystery section resembling a crime scene investigation. There’s even a glass skylight on the first floor allowing sunlight to stream in.
With both stores, the attention to detail is impeccable. There is an intangible charm they exude, with non-intrusive bookshop owners who’d leave you to browse at your own pleasure. Perhaps, their genuine love for books has translated these places into spaces that feel uncannily like home.
20-year-old arts undergraduate, Olivia Yiew, shares her preference for independent bookstores: “I like them because it’s unique and has a different concept. There's no hurry, the lovely interior and personalised touches returns the fun to buying books. Unlike in chain book stores, the large interior and mass produced sections, with many people around makes it difficult for me to relax and indulge in the experience of buying a new book.”
While I can’t deny that I had many great afternoons in big bookstores like Borders, there was always a sense of detachment from the place. Quite like a Cold Storage, I’d only visit these stores if I had a specific book in mind or if I merely wanted to browse.
But at bookstores like Woods in the Books and Littered with Books that are comfortably nestled between rows of colonial shop houses and offer quiet afternoon retreats away from the hustle and bustle of city life, it’s hard to reach out for a book and not feel compelled to buy it. Not for the book alone, but also just to take home a piece of the bookstore with you.
By Sujah Abhilash
Woods in the Books is located at 58 Club Street and Milennia Walk
Littered with Books is located at 20 Duxton Road
Next week, we place a bookmark on eBooking and find out if publishers, Math Paper Press and Monsoon Books, are jumping on the bandwagon of eBooking.