Photo Essay

Recently, many bookstores in Singapore have been closing down. I’m not talking about “big bookstores chains” like Kinokuniya and Times, but the friendly, old-fashioned, bookstores managed by a friendly auntie or uncle who’s been in the business for more than 30 years. And they solely sell or rent books. For example, EMF Bookstore, which used to be at Holland Road Shopping Centre, moved out of its premises in March.

Being a book-lover myself, I felt that I could relate to this issue better, and I also wanted to highlight the merits of buying and reading print books instead of reading them online, and highlight the opinions of bookstore owners and their feelings on this.


The bookstores I visited were Book Point (Bras Basah Complex), Sultana Book Store (Peace Centre), Sunny Bookshop (Plaza Singapura) and EMF Bookstore (Fusionopolis, Connexis Tower)


(Above: The first bookstore I visited, Book Point. 


Mr Jawahar Ali, store manager of Book Point, who has been in the business for 30 years.

Mr Ali stocks fiction and non-fiction novels, complete sets of books like Harry Potter series, Twilight and The Hunger Games, encyclopaedias, assessment books, for A level, O level, IB, JC. 50% of his clientele are general walk-in customers, the other 50% is made up of professionals who look for books on engineering, law, medicine. He sells around 200 to 300 books.


Customers come in to sell off their unwanted books. From those books, Mr Ali picks a few to keep in his store. The rest are packed and kept in a warehouse in Malaysia. He selects the titles he wants to sell according to their demand or value. “If they are frequently requested titles, or evergreen books…authors like Shakespeare, Salman Rushdie, George Orwell,” he says.


To date, he has accumulated 2 million titles. I asked him if there is any special treatment he gives to certain books, he said that there are some books that cost $5,000 to $6,000. He classifies them under “antique books” but he doesn’t tell every customer about it. It’s based on request.


These are examples of book series that Mr Ali sells in his store.


“In 1995, there were more than 20 to 30 bookstores in this complex. We are surviving, but that’s because we serve a niche market and we have a strong customer base,” Mr Ali said.

Has he felt the need to upgrade?The place is very cramped, so there’s no place to keep even the books. I don’t want to add any other products, I want to keep it as a bookstore,” Mr Ali said.

The edge Book Point has over chain bookstores? “Many books become out-of-print, because they won’t be printed more than 2 or 3 times. So we ensure that we purchase the books while they are still in print.”


Sultana Bookstore, Peace Centre

The owner, Mr Kwok, estimated Sultana Bookstore to be from the pre-war period. It was difficult to approach him as he was swarmed by a group of nine-year-old native Chinese girls. They were asking him for books about the Dalai Lama and Western culture. After attending to all their requests, he temporarily closed the store and came to speak to me. He declined to be photographed.


I asked Mr Kwok why this rule was in place and he said that it was to keep track of the crowd and safekeep the books from being stolen. Then I asked if he still instilled that rule and he just smiled enigmatically at me.



Sultana Bookstores’s shelves and walls were stacked with books as well. One had to carefully maneuver his/her way around the bookstore so as to not knock any of the books over. I quizzed Mr Kwok about the book culture, and he said it was “lessening, due to alternatives and the demand for fast information.” He also doesn’t feel the need to upgrade his bookstore to include other merchandise like DVDs and knickknacks, because he felt that “a bookstore should be a bookstore, nothing more”.


This is how cramped the shelves were. I could just fit in between the shelves.

Mr Kwok actually told me something interesting about second-hand bookstores – he said that people who manage those bookstores are more personable and friendlier – basically willing to interact with readers’ problems. “This is not your average bookstore,” he quipped. He befriends his customers, who sometimes have issues they want to just vent about, and he listens to them. He also offers spiritual counseling. Personally I don’t think you can ever get that in a Times, or a Kinokuniya.

He also told me about a lot of stories that involved readers trying to find closure after their loved ones had passed away, and how they confided in them.


EMF Bookstore

The second bookstore I visited was EMF bookstore at Fusionopolis. I spoke to Ms Joan Sim, the salesperson on duty that day.

EMF’s system is similar to San Bookshop’s. There are two prices stated on the inside of the book. When a customer buys, they pay the first price. If they return the book within a month, they will be refunded the second price. EMF’s books are also GST-free.
















EMF greatly resembled a pop-up store, as evident from the railings, and standalone shelves.




Children perusing storybooks while their parents waited patiently for them. Half of the bookstore was taken up by children’s storybooks and educational books.


When I asked Ms Sim why EMF set up shop at Fusionopolis, she said that the management had actually approached EMF, because they didn’t have a bookstore. Ms Sim told me at the moment,that the landlord of Holland Road Shopping Centre is giving them a temporary space to clear off their stock. But they have set up another store in Fusionopolis. They liked Fusionopolis, because they didn’t want to set up shop too far away from Holland, which is where they have a strong customer base.

Ms Sim thinks the book culture in Singapore has weakened compared to 10-15 years ago, because now most people prefer e-books. There are those who take the time to visit the bookstore, because they want to feel the texture of the paper. The bigger competitors would be libraries. Libraries offer their books free of charge.