Secondhand Stories: A Book Crawl Through Singapore
Rental chop at ANA Bookstore
Second-hand shops are fast dwindling. The unreasonable demands of landlords are as much to blame as the waning interest of the reading public. Why rummage in a dusty bookstore when you can tap away and place an order with Amazon or Book Depository? Well, there are a number of pleasures you miss, the joy of a serendipitous find being of one them.
The National Library’s Lee Kong Chian Reference Library has a collection donated by Edwin Thumboo*. Straddling two aisles worth of shelves, this collection offers a peek into a local poet laureate’s particular diet of literature spanning decades – a clear departure from the shelves of a general library or a bookstore collection.
*Editor's note: Edwin Thumboo is a Singaporean poet and academic who is regarded as one of the pioneers of English literature in Singapore.
Last November, the closing sale of VTS Books at Irving Industrial Building piqued my attention. This second-hand collection of over 30,000 books initially grew out of the late Aravind Nair’s home library, then a shop at Upper Cross Street before shifting much later into a warehouse. As with Thumboo’s collection, this warehouse bore traces of Nair’s wide-ranging interests, from spirituality to regional politics.
Now imagine row upon row of shelves that are a repository of memories, each pre-loved book from a distinct owner. That is how I have come to see second-hand bookshops – as bearing traces of past lives. While leafing through yellowed pages, I have uncovered underscored passages, dedicatory messages and margin notes hastily penned that enriched the delight of reading.
One overcast afternoon, I ventured on a book crawl with book aficionados Zarina and Marc. Treat this as a taster. It is not a comprehensive listing or a history of second-hand dealers. If you wish to retrace our footsteps in prospecting for that serendipitous find, follow the directions given!
ORCHARD: ANA BOOKSTORE
We start our crawl at ANA Bookstore (Far East Plaza, #05-01). Always smartly dressed, the proprietor, Mr Mohd Noorul Islam, exudes a charisma that's rare in this trade. Most proprietors I know are camera-shy and do not venture past small talk with new customers. In the course of our banter, he confessed that reading was not amongst his hobbies. Fair enough, nothing unusual there. He picked “Beano” when pressed on what he would read for pleasure and obliged our request for a picture by gamely posing with a copy of “Dennis & Gnasher: Biggest Joke Book Ever!”.
Mr Mohd Noorul Islam, who runs ANA Bookstore
For those who used to frequent Far East Plaza for secondhand books, ANA is the last of three bookshops (Sunny Bookshop and Books Galore) still standing. Sunny Bookshop moved to Plaza Singapura in 2010 before closing down in 2014.
ANA boasts a good mix of genres in both fiction and non-fiction in spite of its small footprint. Of particular interest to me are the stacks of comics from 1980s to 90s. I once bought a copy of Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing Vol. 2: Love and Death” (DC paperback, 1995) and an issue of Scott McCloud’s first comic book series “Zot!”.
SELEGIE: BOOK TREASURE
Next, we hopped onto a bus that took us from Scotts Road to Bras Basah Road. Upon alighting, we walked to Parklane Shopping Mall where Book Treasure occupies the ground-floor foyer next to the security counter.
Roger Wong of Book Treasure runs the stall with his wife, setting up shop in front of a row of dodgy massage parlours. Like most second-hand book dealers, they have a keen memory of your past purchases and often make recommendations to regular customers. Recently, I purchased Julian Wiseman’s “The Pig: A British History” (second edition, Duckbacks, 2000) which proved good company while I spent a week in reservist training.
Wong regularly replenishes the display with books from his warehouse which makes each visit rewarding. The variety of books straddles a wide range of topics and includes rare or out-of-print titles like “The First 150 Years of Singapore” by Donald and Julian Moore.
SELEGIE: SULTANA BOOK STORE
A short walk down Selegie Road brought us to our next stop: Sultana Book Store (Peace Centre, #02-14). While the store has changed hands over the years, I was only acquainted with the shop via the current storekeeper, Mr Kwok. Although not always clearly labelled, there are discernible sections in Sultana, including a decent collection of popular science and philosophy titles amongst others. Kwok is erudite and I enjoy my conversations with him as I make regular trips to his shop.
Being an SJI old boy, Kwok has fond memories of the neighbourhood of Selegie and Bras Basah. The campus of the old St Joseph’s Institution (SJI) still stands and is today home to the Singapore Art Museum. He shared that book browsing at the nearby Beng Swee Place was a regular after-school ritual. The real attraction though, was the legendary Saints Bookstall, at times tucked away in an alley and echoing the journey of many second-hand dealers, who began selling books at stalls on the street or five-foot ways before establishing a permanent brick-and-mortar shop.
BRAS BASAH COMPLEX
The interior of Evernew Book Store, replete with communist paraphernalia
From Selegie Road, we turned down Middle Road and walked to Bras Basah Complex which is home to three well-stocked second-hand book dealers: Evernew, Knowledge and Book Point. While Bras Basah has been emptied of a lot of old book haunts, it still holds surprises.
Evernew Book Store (#01-07) specialises in books on local interest, art and has a “two for five dollar” offer on a number of titles. I recently came away with four titles from their bargain section: Burton’s “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy”, Kotkin’s “The City”, Barrow’s “Making History, Drawing Territory” and Taylor’s “Learning to Look”.
Knowledge Book Centre (#03-35B/37B) is hard to miss as it faces the escalator. While the interior is full of textbooks and assessment books, there are specialities like a row of hardcover non-fiction books, children’s books and old magazines.
Of the three, Book Point has the largest collection of second-hand books on display and each section is well-stocked. My only gripe is that the prices are noticeably higher than its counterparts and has appreciated considerably over time. However, if you are a stickler for collecting books by their editions or first prints, Book Point is a good starting point. I once bought a copy of Warren Chappel’s “A Short History of the Printed Word” (first edition, Dorset, 1989) here after learning that the second edition was poorly put together.
For our last stop, we hopped on bus 33 from Victoria Street and headed to Tiong Bahru. Once at Tiong Bahru, it was a short walk to BooksActually (9 Yong Siak Street). This is the only shop on this crawl to have an unobstructed street frontage – something the old shops at Bras Basah would have enjoyed till the bulldozers came and they were relocated into mixed-use complexes and malls.
Having established itself as a home-grown institution, BooksActually needs no introduction. While it is not a second-hand book dealer, it does have a fairly idiosyncratic collection at the back of the shop, which is seen in the eclectic range of titles like “Socialism that works ... the Singapore way”, edited by Devan Nair (Federal Publications, 1976) and “Sniglets (Snig'lit): Any Word That Doesn't Appear in the Dictionary, But Should” by Rich Hall (Collier, 1994).
Oh, and while you are the back of the shop, be a dear and let the house cats or staff through as the passageway is narrow.
The idea of a book crawl came to me while perusing magazine listings for pub crawls. Having previously drawn up a list of second-hand book dealers in Singapore, I wondered if I could string enough stops into a crawl and this story demonstrates one thread of possible shops to visit in the course of an afternoon.
I hope I have whet your appetite for a book hunt in the process. While my book hoarding is incomparable to some of my friends’, I am guilty of tsundoku (purchasing books but not reading them). This is an affliction I am only too happy to live with as I know I will get around to each book eventually. Yes, eventually.
Photos by Mackerel.