Upon entering the shop, the change in the atmosphere is clear through all senses – from the sudden rush of cold air that contrasts with the heat outside, to the scent of books along with a sense of quietness, and an instantaneous greeting from the staff. The environment around me was drastically different from the world outside, like a tiny haven in the middle of a bustling city. The modification of an old Peranakan shophouse to suit the commercial enterprise of a bookshop created a space of transition for rest, like a quiet harbour. A bookseller approached me and asked if I have been here before, to which I replied no. She then gave me a detailed introduction to the bookshop; from the categories of books they had to their specific locations. I was left alone soon after, but this encounter established trust and familiarity between the booksellers and me. Given that the shop was literally filled with books all over the place, such availability of help eliminated most of the problems in finding books and dispelled the intimidating nature of bookstores (given the quietness that projected some sort of formality to be kept).
The shop had a diverse collection of books. As such, a trip to this shop was not just a mere transition through space; it provided a wealth of information and intellectual conversations, especially with the booksellers who were more than happy to talk about books than the average Joe. While on first glance the shop seemed to be a place for mere commercial exchanges, underneath its array of books lay a diversity of novels that were hard to find anywhere else. Such a choice of books may have transcended mere capitalistic values of putting bestsellers out there, and may have shown a certain level of curating and personal interest/stake in the sale of books.
The customers in the shop were mostly middle-aged Caucasians and Chinese Singaporeans, coming with their families or as couples on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There were very few customers who came alone; individuals associated a certain level of familial value with the bookshop as a quiet resting spot on a weekend. The crowd’s movement was largely hindered by not only the narrow walkways due to the obstructing bench, but also by the small size of the space that simply could not accomodate an overwhelming crowd. The crowd maintained the silence present in the shop, albeit with a few exceptions of children roaming around the shop. Interestingly, most of the customers chose to explore the bookshelves at the back that stored restocks and children’s books, instead of browsing through the massive literary section that was largely catered for their age group. Perhaps one of the reasons for this may have been that the point-of-sale counter was directly in front of the literary section, providing little private space for customers to browse. This however, may pertain to the lack of interest in reading, given the fleeting attention of some; I observed that these customers were merely enjoying the air-conditioning while taking a break from their café-hopping trip through their conversations that pierced through the shop’s quietness. The shop was located in the middle of a popular café district that catered to such a crowd. The notion of the bookshop as a stopover was even clearer during the lunch hour, as a notable number of customers left the shop upon meeting their friends or picking up calls.
Nevertheless, there were interactions between customers and booksellers that reinforced the shop’s function as a haven of books. A young Caucasian boy asked a bookseller for a book, and the latter proactively searched for it and handed it to him later with a smile. Similarly, the kid’s parents requested for some books that swung the crew into motion; from searching it on the computer to heading upstairs to pick it up. This series of interactions affirmed not only the system in place for customers to acquire books quickly, but also highlighted the wealth of intellectual small talk and social conventions that created a level of friendliness and warmth for the shop to keep its value in the midst of dying bookshops in Singapore.
I made my way out of the shop, but not without purchasing a book; to which I noticed a huge display of signatures and well wishes behind the counter. Perhaps this space is more than just a spot of transition; it has a wealth of intellectual and familial connections that makes this shop a place to always return to. For those who do not read and like this place to be a mere point of rest, it clearly holds a different meaning to book lovers who treasure this place as an institution that supports the love for reading.