local bookstores matter

This became surprisingly long, but if you’re interested to hear about my memories of working at a local bookstore and why it matters to me - read on.

I realised I’ve not written about my 2017/18 bookstore days, and I thought I should before memories get murkier as years catch on.

my dream of becoming a bookseller

Some friends and colleagues may know - I have a dream of becoming a bookseller one day. This dream came about as a bookish teenager who loved to spend time in the public library looking for more fiction to devour during the school holidays. This love for reading was instilled in me when my parents regularly brought me to the library, Popular bookstores, and MPH warehouse book sales to pick up a handful of books at a time.

As a 15 or 16 year-old using Tumblr when it was cool, the photos of cosy overseas bookstores and never ending rows of bookshelves became my escape. I wanted to live in those places like it was my fairy tale. I never dreamed of my future house, but I dreamed of my future bookstore. I’d have loved to spend my days and nights amongst books I know I can never finish reading in this lifetime. I told myself, when I retire, I want to be a bookseller!

At that point in time, it sounded like an easy job because I did not know what was in store for booksellers. I never had other aspirations that most asian parents would want their children to have - of wanting to be a doctor, or lawyer, or to make lots of money. Because I just wanted to be with books.

It was just a dream right? I knew I still needed to study hard, go to university, come out of the education system, get a ‘proper job’ and have a steady career progression in an office job. That was the prescribed path to success.

When I have enough money to retire, I can finally own my bookstore.

taking one baby step forward to realise that dream

Fast forward to being a fresh Sociology grad out of SMU, I secured a full-time role in a MNC HR consulting firm and I slogged it out there with the usual long hours, rushing deliverables to meet deadlines. However, I was deeply unsatisfied and unhappy. I felt no connection to what I was doing, and didn’t find it particularly meaningful. After 4 months, I knew I had to go. Where to? I wasn’t sure. I wanted to take the leap of faith and see where I landed. While applying for other roles and thinking about my next steps - I still needed to find an interim job to sustain myself and my student loan.

A few days before my last day at the firm, I had this crazy idea to send cold emails to some local bookstores to ask them if they had any part-time vacancies. I remember emailing Booktique (Anthony), BooksActually, and Littered with Books. Anthony replied my email and was keen to meet and have a chat even though he wasn’t hiring. And I made a new bookseller friend that I still keep in touch with till today. His passion for books and bookselling is just amazing, and I still love the conversations we have whenever I see him at his pop-ups.

BooksActually replied much later on, and boss Kenny asked if I was still keen and free to go down for an interview. I was like.. “FOR REAL?!!” Couldn’t believe my luck. So I went down to 9 Yong Siak St one afternoon and had the interview with Kenny. The quiet and strict demeanour of Kenny threw me off and I was quite nervous. I wasn’t prepared to talk about books I’ve read. They mostly stayed in my head and I didn’t have the habit of remembering authors’ names and contents of books well. I thought I had screwed it up because of my lack of knowledge of books.

Apart from the most interesting interview question I had ever encountered, “How comfortable are you with cats? Are you allergic to them?” Kenny said something along the lines of passion is not enough for bookselling. I don’t think I fully understood what it meant at that time. But I had the best opportunity to see it with my own eyes - because to my surprise, the next day I received a text to ask me when I could start.

the working experience at a local bookstore - BooksActually

I started my 7 (?) month stint as a Bookstore Elf (that’s what we affectionately called ourselves as we slogged it out in the store like Santa’s elves).

Kenny used to say he doesn’t know how to manage people, but to me he was an exceptionally kind boss, and respectable leader. He made sure to teach us the ropes of bookselling. He showed us how he thought about book displays, and shared random background about the books that he brought in to sell. My goldfish memory could never remember everything he said but marvelled at the amount of knowledge about books he held in his head. Even down to knowing what titles were going out of stock without even checking on the inventory.

As part-timers, we needed to learn how to make book recommendations to customers. Like most successful retailers, we had to provide good customer service and experiences. Everything was operationalised. How to greet customers. How to be observant and make sure we anticipate their needs by bringing the baskets to them while they browsed. How we tag team at the cashier to collect payment and pack books to reduce waiting time. How to place books in paper bags so that they don’t move around and crease. How to protect them from rain if it was raining outside. How to pack books so tightly that the rough journey of deliveries doesn’t damage them. It was a hell lot of things to remember while working in a bookstore. Each day was an interesting challenge.

There were never long stretches of time where we would be idle. Some days we restocked marginalia cahiers - learning to use the typewriter and going thock thock thock carefully to make sure we don’t make typos while typing beautiful quotes, then sewing up the loose papers into notebooks by hand. Processing incoming book inventory and writing price tags by hand so that the books aren’t damaged by the stickers of usual price tag machines (I THINK that’s the reason why we did that?!). Making deliveries to schools in a cab accompanied by boxes of lit books. Stocking up the mystery book vending machines with two or more filled-to-the-brim tote bags at various venues around Singapore. Going round the bookstore, cleaning the floor with magiclean a few times a day, making sure the books were in the right order, and neatly displayed.. I picked up this habit of aligning rows of books to the edge of shelves and sometimes find myself doing it while browsing books in other bookstores or the library!

There were lots of heavy lifting in all sense of the word when books have to be transported. Arm muscles were built. All these just a scratch on the surface of bookstore operations that provided customers with the unique bookstore experience. Read what Kenny wrote in his article: 24 hours as a bookseller. Not. Fucking. Easy. At. All. Maybe that’s why passion is not enough?!

I’m not sure if I can even do this at age 40, when my bones are tired and I’m terribly sick of people asking stupid questions. Sorry, I know no question is supposed to be a stupid question, but when you deal with customers, even supposedly well-read ones, some are really stupid and hilarious.

being around people with soul

It’s not just about bookstore operations.

In the bookstore, I met all sorts of interesting people. Even those working with me had interesting stories to tell, and experiences to share. I was amongst avid writers and readers, creative people. People who were active in the SingLit scene or the theatre scene. People who were more of a reader and writer than I ever was. I remember feeling ashamed about my own writing because I was not part of the inner circle and I was afraid of getting judged for writing trash.

Yea, I think we all start out by writing trash and getting criticisms to improve. I didn’t know better. But that year, I wrote and published so much more. I was trying to heal from the corporate days burnout and emotional traumas of 2017 so I was feeling intensely emotional and reflective. I started a 100-day haiku challenge because I was inspired by the environment I was in. I’ve not written anything like that since then, but still one of the proudest thing I’ve done as a ‘writer’.

We had interactions with travelers from faraway, some were really awesome people, some were nasty/racist/demeaning and needed a good telling off. Boss Kenny never allowed us to be bullied by nasty customers (local or otherwise) and would fearlessly offend them if they were rude to us first.

A random positive interaction that I journaled on 26 Nov 2017:

“Went to the post office to drop off AM mail today, and had an old Swiss man come up to us to ask for directions. Interestingly, he was looking for BA! So we told him, hey we work there so you can come with us! Actually come to think of it, if I were him and travelling, I don’t think I would trust people so easily and follow them. What if they were out to con? He was a fascinating old man who still uses the paper map, has no smart phone, and kept newspaper clippings with him. As we walked back to the bookshop, we were in easy conversation about Singapore and what he was doing here. He was so fascinated with the public housing and this neighbourhood. I can totally imagine myself in his shoes, looking for the local bookstore. He seemed to enjoy his time browsing around the local literature and eventually bought From the Belly of the Cat and Snapshots of Little India.”

The good ol’ days.

Working at a bookstore wasn’t a walk in the park, but I look back at these memories and feel extremely thankful for the leap of faiths that got me there.

our local bookstores matter

I can’t believe how long this post has gotten and I’m not even done. I was inspired to write this down because I saw this post from Kenny’s Facebook.

This is why I buy from local booksellers instead of BookDepo now. I used to buy from Book Depo because of how cheap it is but my bookseller friends are fighting so hard to keep indie bookstores alive, the least I can do is to support them with whatever amount I can spare on books.

I guess my point is - bookstores hold memories and experiences that Amazon’s algorithms cannot. These are precious human connections we all crave, so please, keep our local book industry alive.

One potential business idea though - I need storage options for books in this humid weather. My books are turning yellow and gross.

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