BOOKSTORES may seem to be a sunset - or maybe closer to dead - industry, but some niche operators are proving that it's possible to survive, or even thrive, despite the dramatic closures of big guns like Borders and Page One.
Even with the likes of Kinokuniya, MPH and Popular cornering the local market, these indie outfits make it on the strength of their unique concepts and being nimble enough to diversify into fringe businesses. And the outlook is promising enough for new brick and mortar shops to open in spite of high rent and the rise of e-books.
Woods in the Books, for one, moved out of its Club Street store to a space twice as large on Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru a few weeks ago. And in an age where multiple shops is a rarity, a second store at Millenia Walk remains open for business.
"Our expansion to two stores came about accidentally," says co-owner Shannon Ong, who runs the Yong Siak store with her husband, Mike Foo, and leaves the Millenia Walk outlet to staff. "It looked like our Club Street lease might not be renewed so we scouted a new location, and even when it turned out we could stay in Club Street, we decided to capitalise on the momentum and open another branch anyway."
The three-year-old business focuses on picture books for all ages, but an ongoing challenge is overcoming assumptions that picture books are only for children. And although Ong and Foo have taken pains to position adult books at the storefront, and the fact that some books, such as Armin Greder's The Island, would never be found in a nursery, the couple still find themselves educating customers daily.
"It's partly a cultural issue, and while picture books have a long tradition in Europe, for example, adult books here are typically equated with having more words than pictures," says Foo, 41. It doesn't help that Woods in the Books doesn't typically sell comics or graphic novels. It's common to find books there that devote an entire page to an image, with at most a line of text.
Misconceptions aside, at least Woods in the Books has a recognisable niche. And Ong, 35, who has a degree in Chinese, already has a shelf of Chinese picture books at the Yong Siak branch and is open to expanding that selection.
Precious Words is a bit newer than Woods in the Books, and opened in Hitachi Tower in June 2011. Its niche is one of location as much as concept. In exchange for withstanding Shenton Way rents, the store gets to be the only real bookstore in the area.
"The area has had no bookshop for the longest time," says a spokesman. "Most of our customers are from nearby offices and also tourists."
The shop has been a lifelong dream of Peter Wong and his wife, a 40-something couple who have a particular love of printed books and the experience of browsing. Everything's curated personally. Wong also runs an integrated consultancy and turnkey design firm, while Mrs Wong retired three years ago from a 13-year career in the oil industry.
"The owners want to create a place where people can still feel, browse and select their books personally," says the spokesman. "To re-ignite the love of reading, the appreciation of books, by creating an environment where carefully selected titles are on sale, e.g. no erotic fiction or hot-selling 50 Shades of Grey.
"To this day, the owners still select the books and items they want to feature in the store, with input from the retail staff. This is in some sense a calling. While it is important to work towards profitability, they are not in this business just for profits - if that were so, they would have chosen different products or a different setup altogether."
Eggs in many baskets
But even those with die-hard love for the printed word can't survive on book sales alone. Precious Words sees the key to success in "being diverse in selling not just books but also other items like gifts, CDs, toys and stationery", although books remain the core which needs to be both curated and steadily expanded.
Woods in the Books does sell a few accessories besides books, such as bags, cards and notepads. But the real key to income diversification would be events and workshops, which were major incentives for moving into the bigger space. Customers will be charged for the activities, which will be taught by professional instructors. And although pricing hasn't been decided yet because the courses haven't started, they will be targeted at both children and adults, and cover everything from arts and crafts, to drawing, to book-binding.
Foo is an accomplished artist who does commissioned murals and illustration work, which also help balance the books.
"The challenges ahead for us are not only competition from e-books, but the speedily rising rental too," says Ong. "Every hike in rent after a lease term or a move to a new location is actually a major disruption to our development, in financial terms as well as in time and energy. Looking at the rate of rent hikes, we worry that while we strive hard to be profitable, the rate of rental raises will bring us back to square one," she adds.
"To sustain and grow, we have to diversify, from building in-house content to experience-oriented services. In a way, the next three years will be another crucial phase of development for us with more challenges, so we have to work doubly hard."
No one's more sensitive to rental hikes than the veteran of the indie bookstores, BooksActually. It's been around for more than seven years and in that time, it's moved four times and had three outlets at the peak of its expansion. Only the first move was voluntary, says owner Kenny Leck in a BooksActually documentary. When the landlord at its previous location at Club Street considered raising the store's rent from $8,000 to the region of $11,500 or $12,000, it moved to its current Yong Siak location in 2011, a few doors down from Woods in the Books. But the monthly rental has since doubled from $3,800 to $8,000.
"I don't think we'll ever truly be successful until we own our own shop space - we'll always be at the mercy of landlords because we're still far away from that dream," says BooksActually store manager Renee Ting. Even though BooksActually only has one location now, overheads remain a concern, which is part of the reason for continued focus on its accessories business, which includes its stationery brand Birds & Co, and its publishing arm, Math Paper Press. Both businesses have been around since the start of BooksActually, but only really started to take off in a big way in 2011, and help BooksActually keep its eggs in more than one basket, says Ting.
Precious Words, Woods in the Books and BooksActually have been relatively conservative in their efforts at diversification. But others have been far more aggressive. Bookhaven, which soft launched in January and will officially open on March 22, isn't shy about styling itself as a full-blown lifestyle bookstore. The 4,000 sq ft shop is located within the National University of Singapore, and is jointly owned by the NUS Co-op and World Scientific Publishing, which means it pays reasonable rent and has access to a ready customer base of students.
Bookhaven director Max Phua says that the concept "stems from a passion of bringing books to people", and World Scientific Publishing senior marketing executive Jason Lim says that mission relates specifically to a passion for printed books.
"But Bookhaven wouldn't be a complete lifestyle offering if it didn't also offer e-books and all those things that make it a complete lifestyle offering, because that holistic concept is what attracts people," says Lim.
Customers can pick up one of the store's tablet computers to buy e-books directly from ilovebooks.com, or they can buy prepaid e-book cards. And the list of non-book items includes everything from aromatherapy and T-shirts, to snacks and iPad cases. And a Cedele cafe within the store completes the package.
Book genres at Bookhaven tend towards the mainstream, according to Lim, although the store's not averse to indie and esoteric titles. And NUS students can also order their textbooks there.
Other stores have moved away from their bookstore roots in an effort to get customers to linger. Books Cellar was started in 2010 at Bukit Pasoh Road by Chang Hon Vie as a bar cafe with a slant towards horror novels. But after Jake Folkoff took over the store in August and changed the name to The Reading Room, the F&B aspect has been beefed up considerably, which has attracted two book clubs to hold regular meetings there.
"I improved both the food and drinks menus so I think that's given people more of a reason to sit down and spend some time here," says Folkoff, 25. His uncle roasts coffee beans in Naples so he's imported some for a gourmet coffee experience. And although customers can read books for free, they are free to buy paperbacks for $10 and hardbacks for $32, if they find something they can't put down. Although Folkoff's placed an emphasis on F&B, he's actually expanded the selection of books by installing more shelves, and although a bust of the Pinhead character from Clive Barker's novel The Hellbound Heart still adorns one of the shelves, horror is no longer the mainstay.
In spite of the perennial bugbear of spiralling rent, it seems clear that it's possible for savvy bookstores to stay alive. Competition and cost pressures have forced them to either refine or broaden their offerings, and the result seems to be a business that's more compelling. None of those measures guarantees success but local book lovers who still cling to the romantic notion of browsing through eclectic bookshops ala Charing Cross Road still have a few places to dream in.