There’s a bookshop boom in Malaysia aided by unconventional business models and pandemic-changed reading habits.
When former journalists Fong Min Hun and Elaine Lau opened Lit Books in Petaling Jaya in 2017, they fielded “a lot of scepticism” about the prospect of running a bricks-and-mortar bookshop. Critics speculated that it was a sunset industry, and that people were only interested in e-books now.
“But no,” says Lau. “People still read physical books.” And so the husband-and-wife team rented a shop with high ceilings and ample sunlight. The cashier desk doubles as a counter where guests can sit with tea or coffee and flip through a novel. Bookshelves have wheels so that they can be easily moved aside for a jazz performance, author reading or literary quiz.
Malaysia boasts one of the world’s highest literacy rates but a 2016 report found that among Malaysians who read regularly, just 3 per cent picked up a book, most preferring to read a newspaper. It’s why the pre-pandemic book industry here was suffering from closures and shrinking revenue. Two years of lockdowns also hurt retail and forced booksellers online. But when people were stuck at home, they began to read more: according to the National Library of Malaysia, demand for digital reading material more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2019.
Now KL is experiencing a resurgence of bricks-and-mortar bookshops. Independent sellers are betting that the pandemic-era pick-up in reading will sustain and translate into in-store sales. They are finding ways to boost physical retail, from befriending customers and stocking niche paperbacks to opening cafés and curating the shelves of boutique hotels.
“It’s not about simply making money. It’s about enriching your own thinking, your life and your mind through knowledge.”
In 2020, Malaysian book retailer mph closed scores of shops and shifted to e-commerce. Malaysian chain Bookxcess faced a similar crisis. “We were literally going to go bust,” says Bookxcess co-founder Andrew Yap. Most sales came from the international Big Bad Wolf Books fairs that Bookxcess runs, which sell remaindered books at steep discounts. The pandemic rendered the fairs impossible and Yap went online, which kept the business afloat. But the moment he could, he doubled down on bricks-and- mortar. The stores are designed to lure customers in. Each has a different, eclectic design: one is housed in an old cinema complex; another has an ice-cream bar; and many are in malls, a popular weekend destination guaranteed to bring foot traffic. Bookxcess has gone from eight shops before the pandemic to 19 in July 2022.
It’s not just chains that are bouncing back. Independent seller Monsoon Books opened in 2021 in Petaling Jaya and caters to Malaysia’s Chinese-speaking population — around two-thirds of its books are in Chinese. The selection is diverse and tends toward the highbrow; readers can purchase a treatise on Beethoven’s piano sonatas or the latest issue of Malaysian indie publication Process Magazine.
“People come to our shop and say, ‘Wow, I never expected to see these kinds of books in a Malaysian bookshop’,” says store manager Gan Han Lin. Gan left his job as a schoolteacher to run Monsoon. He hired a local designer to build shelves and a clean, cosy interior. Visitors can relax and read inside or buy a drink at the café downstairs to enjoy on the plant-filled balcony.
“We want to establish a little bit of a niche market,” says Ng Kok Heong, a retired timber salesman who invested in Monsoon as a passion project. “If you go into the big chain bookshops you’ll see that most of the shelf is all books about wealth management and how to make money. We don’t want to sell those books. It’s not about simply making money; it’s about enriching your own thinking, your life and your mind through knowledge.”
Abdul Nazir Harith Fadzilah amassed a huge collection of books as an engineering student in Melbourne and wanted to bring his favourites back to Malaysia. In 2006 he opened independent bookshop Tintabudi in KL and began selling from his personal library alongside publishers he discovered at book festivals. Fadzilah has expanded Tintabudi’s business model, publishing a local author’s poetry collection and collaborating with the Kloé Hotel to curate their “room to read”, one of five culture-themed suites on offer at the venue. Some Kloé guests have become Tintabudi patrons.
Fadzilah has seen interest in printed books grow in the years since he opened Tintabudi, especially among younger readers. “There is a movement [away] from the internet and back to books,” says Fadzilah. “It’s an exciting progression.” For independent bookshops, customer relationships are the cornerstone of their business, a trump card over chains and the best part of the job. The vast majority of Lit Books’ sales are from repeat customers and shelves are lined with a mixture of owners’ picks and regulars’ favourites. Much of what they sell is available in bigger shops but people seek them out because they feel a connection to the business.
“We meet every single person,” says Elaine Lau. “We do spend a lot of time just talking and it doesn’t always convert to sales but the relationship is set and people appreciate that. We have people who didn’t buy something the first time but they’re back here now to purchase today.
In 1992, American author Kathi Kamen Goldmark founded a rock band called the Rock Bottom Remainders. It grew into a literary supergroup of sorts, with Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan and other writers as members. The name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to remaindered books, which are books deemed unsellable after languishing on shelves for too long. Bookshops return the unsold volumes to the publisher and many are pulped and recycled or discarded. Some publishing companies, however, sell the books at vastly reduced prices to shops such as Bookxcess, which can then offer customers very high discounts and still make money. Such cheap books can rattle the market and some governments have instituted laws to prevent the practice. In France, for instance, it’s illegal to sell new books with any more than a 5 per cent discount on the cover price. France’s parliament passed that law in 1981 to protect independent booksellers from chains that could afford to sell with bigger discounts; other European countries have similar fixed-book-price laws. For customers, lower prices can mean more accessible reading material. But buyers should beware, as rock-bottom prices aren’t always a signal that a book is remaindered: some cheap books in online marketplaces have been illegally photocopied and distributed. E-books have also made book piracy even easier.