As a nation, we’re not known to be a population of readers but there is a small but fervent minority of bibliophiles who keep bookstores in business. Some, like the Popular chain of bookstores, diversify their offerings beyond literature to keep their bottom lines in the black. As such, the strength of a reading public is perhaps best measured by the health of its indie bookstore scene, where limited resources necessitate careful curation of materials.
A new name in town is Lit Books at Tropicana Avenue, Petaling Jaya, run by owners Fong Min Hun and Elaine Lau. Writers by profession, this couple decided to pursue Fong’s dreams of running a bookstore when they found themselves at a crossroads in their careers. To convince a sceptical Lau about the feasibility of the venture, Fong visited bookshops around Selangor, casually striking up conversations with the cashiers as he made his purchases.
“I’d make small talk and say something along the lines of, ‘You know, I hear Malaysians don’t read. How many books do you sell per week or month?’ I then used the worst-performing store as my benchmark and engineered everything so that if I could match its performance, we would be fine,” he says. “I’m a pretty pragmatic guy. If you want to qualify for the Olympics, you just need to beat the slowest participant. I’m not thinking of winning right now, I just want to be part of the race.”
The door to Lit Books opens to an oasis of wood and paper, punctuated by the heady smell of coffee. Shelves are peppered with intriguing titles and interesting covers, including exquisitely illustrated and bound selections by London-based publisher Folio Society. Each has been handpicked by Fong and Lau, who frankly admit to not having personally read every single book but are more than able to talk about them. Both are voracious readers and enjoy discussing the merits — or demerits — of authors and titles, and offering recommendations based on their customers’ reading tastes.
Fong defines a good bookstore as one that has commendable breadth and depth and which exhibits a character of its own. “Ours has a distinct identity because it clearly reflects Elaine’s and my reading tastes,” he says. “There is a slight bias towards literary fiction as that’s a favourite genre of ours but I think you’ll find that every title meets a certain criteria. It’s a constant work in progress and while we cull some books that don’t interest the public, there are certain books I will always have in my store regardless of how little they contribute to sales because they’re important to the character of Lit Books.”
He includes many philosophy titles in this section, alongside the works of the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro and Nikos Kazantzakis. “Some of Ishiguro’s books don’t sell at all but I’m intent on ensuring we always have his works because he’s an important writer. As for Kazantzakis, I’ve only had a single reader buy The Last Temptation of Christ and no one has picked up Zorba the Greek, but these are defining books in my life so I’ll always have them at hand,” says Fong.
While we do carry children’s books, our audience are mainly adults and you can’t make adults read if they don’t want to. We just love books and want to share that with like-minded people
“Some are definitely not easy to tackle, like Will Self’s books or James Joyce’s Ulysses,” comments Lau, who, Fong admits, sometimes despairs of his choice of inventory.
“But they’re aspirational books,” replies her husband. “They’re a tough slog and regardless of your enjoyment of the stories, you can appreciate that there is some artistry to them. It’s like how Kant described beauty, as being purposive without purpose. I just finished Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch and absolutely hated it — it’s a thick novel with a stupid story — but I can recognise the artistry behind it.”
Just four months into the business, it is hard to gauge the success and potential longevity of Lit Books but the couple are optimistic. “We’re not trying to convert people into reading,” says Lau. “While we do carry children’s books, our audience are mainly adults and you can’t make adults read if they don’t want to. We just love books and want to share that with like-minded people.”
Leon Ngai of Bookalicious! can relate to the sentiment. It was “a big dream come true” when he set it up in 2010 as an indie bookshop to cater to the needs of bibliophiles. Sustaining the business has been a journey marked by highs — having writers walk in to buy books and becoming good friends with customers — and lows, such as the economic slowdown and easy access to ebooks.
The retail environment is very challenging now, Ngai says. When times are bad, books become luxury items. The growing number of people who download books illegally and the emergence of online booksellers offering free shipping worldwide make competition even tougher.
But he has no regrets. “I told myself this before starting: I need to build the bookshop. If it fails, I can proudly say that at least I tried, and move on to other things.”
Fortunately for regular customers who have told him, “Don’t you ever close down”, Ngai remains positive about the industry. “The market is there but it is very competitive. We have to be very creative because we cater to a niche audience. We have to grow it through e-commerce and make our products presentable to attract readers.”
Whatever one may say about not judging a book by its cover, his experience shows that “a picture speaks volumes. If people like what they see, they will buy the book regardless of what it is about. It’s all eye candy”.
With publishers posting all sorts to scintillating pictures to entice readers to buy, he gets creative taking pictures of new books that come in and putting the covers online. “We have to do that because most of our target audience, young adults, are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.”
Bookalicious! has range and variety on its side, especially in young adult fiction, box sets of classic works and out-of-print volumes, as well as pricing: its books cost 10% to 30% less than those at other stores. What is more, Ngai eagerly recommends titles to those who want suggestions on what to read.
“We mark our prices down to encourage the young to buy more books and cultivate the reading habit,” says Ngai, 45, whose passion for books was sealed in secondary school by Dean Koontz’s “really unputdowntable” Shattered and Larry McMurty’s coming-of-age novel, The Last Picture Show. A voracious reader who used to finish a book at one sitting, he says his three all-time favourites are To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald) and The Catcher in the Rye (J D Salinger). Posters of these books take pride of place in his store.
Decades of rereading these classics have not changed how he has felt about them from the start. “Atticus Finch [in Mockingbird] is my literary father. And I can relate to Jay Gatsby, my very good friend. I feel for him. It took me a long time to recover from the ending [of the book].”
The life lessons he gets from books are what nurture his love for reading. “The connection with the characters and the stories ... you can’t get that from other things,” he says.
And just as one cannot have too much of a good thing, Ngai has been collecting books since his schooldays. He used to do part-time stints as a promoter to feed the obsession to buy, read and keep, especially books that are no longer in print. “I need to have that copy, that edition, to complete my collection.”
The connection with the characters and the stories ... you can’t get that from other things
Before Bookalicious!, Ngai worked his way up over 15 years in a major bookshop. He used to travel abroad to book fairs to meet people in the industry and select titles for his company. “I saw bookselling in different countries. For someone who loves books, it was heaven.” He would go wild picking out titles to add to his own collection.
Nowadays, when he does travel, he can only nip into a bookstore for 15 minutes, after handing over his wallet to his wife. “There’s no more space at home for my books,” he says.
There is, however, his little haven at The Summit in Subang Jaya, Selangor, which stocks 15,000 titles. Here, he keeps company with old literary friends who are ready to help him welcome new pals hungry for the printed word.
Lit Books P-01-11 Tropicana Avenue, 12, Persiaran Tropicana, Tropicana Golf & Country Resort, PJ. 03 7886 6988. Tue, 1-9pm; Wed-Sun, 11am-9pm.
Bookalicious! Lot G22 Ground Floor, The Summit USJ Mall, Subang Jaya. 03 8023 7548. Daily, 12.30-9.30pm
This article first appeared on Apr 2, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.