Why Do People Visit Bookstores These Days?

A friend and I recently went into a debate about what makes a bookstore tick these days.

Both of us like to read, and she had the good luck of having worked in Kinokuniya before, which happens to be the last big bookstore chain in Singapore that still offers a huge collection.

Kinokuniya’s main store used to be my favourite haunt in town, and I could lose myself in it for hours. I never left it empty-handed, and I could count on it for fresh reads and serendipitous finds every time I was there. Then some time last year, it moved one level up in the same building to a smaller space due to “space restructuring” by the landlord.

My experience there has never been the same again.

Because of the smaller space, little room has been left for proper curation of the books. The shelves are packed more tightly together, making browsing a claustrophobic experience. Books displayed horizontally on tables are stacked higher, making browsing even more difficult for short folks like me. Navigation through the bookstore has also become challenging, because it no longer has the luxury to leave a clear path like the old store that leads from the entrance and which, if followed faithfully, would bring one to most parts of the bookstore. In the “old” days, this path was generously lined with shelves of new and interesting reads that one would “discover” en route to the desired section. Someone once described the path to me as a “time and money sink”, because he always ended up spending most of his “Kinokuniya time” on it, as well as most of his money on books that lined it.

It has been a long while since I visited the main store, because I no longer liked the browsing experience. Online stores, ebooks and the modern library have also made it so much easier for me to access new books and fill my reading appetite. When I lamented about this “loss” to my friend, and how I wished Kinokuniya could better curate its books like what some of the more successful independent bookstores are doing, I received a short lecture on the differences between a big bookstore like Kinokuniya and the smaller independent bookstores, and that it was almost impossible to curate like the small stores while maintaining a large collection in the midst of a space crunch.

Which leads me to the question of why people still visit bookstores today. After all, won’t it be easier to buy books online with just a few clicks and get instant “you may also like these” recommendations?

Before I’m misunderstood for promoting online bookstores and downplaying the brick and mortar ones, I must set the record straight by declaring that I love brick and mortar stores. Nothing can replace the smell of thousands of new books, the way seeing shelves of unread tomes increases my heart rate, and the sudden rush of euphoria from discovering a book that surprises me. I want bookstores like Kinokuniya to do well, and this is precisely why I’m worried. If it has already lost me as a customer in the last few months, how many more did it and will it lose?

I have friends who tell me they visit bookstores to browse. Some make it into a family outing, so their kids have a nice environment to spend an afternoon in. Others just pop into the store to get hold of a specific title they have in mind, and do not have the patience to wait even a few days for delivery. 

My sense is that the environment created by the bookstore has become even more important in the face of competition from its digital rivals, be it the events that give it a lively buzz or the displays that make people part with their money. While Kinokuniya should continue to carry enough volumes of popular titles to cater to the mass market (where most of its revenue comes from as I was told), it should also make a conscious effort to set aside well-designed spaces for the curation of alternative titles that might continue to attract existing customers and draw in new ones.

But of course, I know Kinokuniya has to continue to exist in the first place and be given a chance to evolve. I just received a mailer that says the bookstore is having a storewide 20% discount for members this weekend.

I think I’ll go book-shopping in town this weekend.

Meantime, what keeps you going back to the brick and mortar bookstores? 


What Happened to Reading for Fun?

The Singapore National Library Board (NLB) recently launched a National Reading Movement to encourage local folks to “read more, read widely and read together”. Yes, the tagline sounds unimaginative, but it’s a 5-year campaign and promises loads of “exciting” programmes to engage adults to read. This follows a dip in NLB’s borrowing records for last year, and the National Literary Reading and Writing survey in March that revealed that more than half of the respondents had not read a literary book in the last one year.

In case you’re thinking that I’m trying to be cynical here, I’m declaring that I’ve been a long-time supporter of NLB’s efforts. In fact, I think NLB manages one of the best national libraries in the region, if not the world. One can find a public or community library in almost every residential town, complete with the latest collections and welcoming reading spaces for both young and old. Check-outs are done at automatic machines; ebooks are available 24/7 online for borrowing and downloading; Singaporeans get to loan up to 8 books for free each time; book themes are curated on a regular basis; outreach activities are organized frequently for the public. The list goes on. 

Yet, Singapore is still not a reading nation.

There are so many reasons we are not. Some blame it on the internet – everyone’s either spending their free time watching YouTube or updating their social media posts. Others blame it on our obsession with academic results, because there are parents who believe reading fiction and spending a morning at the library are a waste of time; their kids are better off attending an enrichment class (which, by the way, enriches neither the mind nor the life of the kid). 

I’m not sure if NLB will be successful with the campaign, because it is already an uphill task to interest kids in reading, and engaging adults will be even tougher, amid the competition for their time from work, family and other forms of entertainment. 

As I look back at my own reading journey, I’m glad I grew up with little pocket money to spare, and even fewer entertainment options, because that left me with the public library where I could enjoy air-conditioning and hours of imaginative entertainment – all for free. The same is not true for kids today.

Take my daughter for example. She’s barely more than two and a half years old, and she has already discovered that the TV and smartphone offer more entertaining options than her shelf of baby board books, despite my attempt to keep electronic devices from her for as long as I can. These days, she asks for her favourite videos in the morning, instead of her favourite books. Her grandparents and father usually relent, because it’s a welcoming alternative to having to give an active child their full attention when they have so much to do – the videos keep her occupied. I try not to, but when the whining gets bad, I usually do, because I want my child to see reading as something enjoyable, not something she wants to get done quickly so that she can move on to something she likes better. However, when she does choose to sit down with a book, I try my best to make the reading session as enjoyable as I can. What has happened is that my little one will still opt to read a book over the TV sometimes, provided I’m the one reading it with her.

Getting adults to read will be much more complicated. I see commuters hunched over their phones and tablets all the time (no, they’re not reading ebooks on their devices), few over a book, and even fewer over a fiction book. NLB has started to create QR codes that train commuters can scan and download recommended reads while travelling. Some have recommended putting free books at popular cafes like Starbucks where people are more relaxed and more likely to pick up a book.

I don’t have a solution for NLB, because I can’t even get my husband or close friends to love reading like I do. 

But I sure hope NLB will succeed.

Will I ever own a Kindle?

Being an avid reader means I like having something interesting to read whenever I want and wherever I go.

In the days before ebooks and smart phones became prevalent, this meant I never went anywhere without at least one book, I did not own bags that wouldn’t fit a mass paperback, and I agonized over which books to bring every time I went on a trip. And so, I watched with anticipation when Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, and promised hundreds of books on the go with just one device. I waited for it to come to Singapore. It never did.

Then the iPhone came along, followed by the iPad. By the time the iPad mini happened in 2012, ebooks were no longer mostly accessible by e-readers only, and I rushed out to buy one. The happiness and euphoria lasted for about a month, before my tired eyes persuaded me to call it a day and switch back to physical books. Reading off a tablet simply didn’t allow me the same number of reading hours I enjoyed from words on paper.

That brought me back to my original inclination to get the Kindle, but the only way for me to buy one was to ask a friend going to the US to buy it there and bring it back for me. And I still had to solve the problem of being able to buy the latest Kindle books after I’d gotten my hands on the hardware.

It is 2016 today. The Kindle is still not available in Singapore – a city with one of the highest levels of internet penetration and number of tech-savvy users. I understand it’s got something to do with distribution rules, but that does little to reduce the amount of frustration I feel.

Of course, lots of kind souls and tech bloggers have shared alternative, albeit not exactly legal, ways to buy the Kindle and Kindle books outside of the available regions. I have searched and considered, struggled a little and am finally giving up. It is simply too much of a hassle. Plus, there is no guarantee that I will like reading off the Kindle more than physical books.

I shall stick to the good old physical books.

(Then again, I wouldn’t mind if someone in Amazon sees this post and finally does something for the poor reading souls on this little red dot.)



Covers make the book

Meet any serious reader and ask what she likes about a book. Her answer will inevitably be something about the content. Seldom will you get a response related to the design of the book’s cover, because no serious reader wants to be seen as being superficial (What? You mean you have nothing to say about the book’s content?).

Yet, more often than not, it is the cover that usually prompts me (and probably most people) to pick up a book to find out what it has to offer within its freshly minted pages. I’m human after all, and humans are known to be visual creatures, like it or not. An apt cover, whether because it is beautifully designed, eye-catching or simply representative of the book’s content, does not come by easily, and I salute the designers behind each great piece of art. Their work is one of the reasons why I still love physical books over digital ones.

Here are some book covers that I like. What are some of yours?

book covers - yellow-lighted bookshop book covers - colorless tsukuru tazaki book covers - ocean at the end of the lane

book covers - quiet   book covers - david and goliath  book covers - the solitude of prime numbers

book covers - the wonder box book covers - the bfg book covers - we're going on a bear hunt


10 reasons why a physical book is better than a digital one

top 10 reasons physical books

I’ve been reading reports about slowing (and in some places, dropping) ebook sales and that the physical book is making a comeback. I’m hardly surprised, because given a choice, I would prefer to hold a physical book in my hands. And yet I was actually one of those who welcomed the arrival of ebooks because they mean more choices and less storage space.

I still read books in both formats today, but here are 10 reasons why I’d choose a physical book over a digital one if I can:

  1. A physical book won’t run out of battery. It’s very frustrating when you only have two more chapters to go and your tablet is screaming for a recharge.
  2. I can share a physical book with a friend any time. With an ebook, I either have to pass her my tablet too, or pay to buy her another digital copy.
  3. I can read my physical book anywhere, even during take-off. I hate it when I’m asked to switch off my tablet during a plane take-off or landing, because that’s when I most need a book to distract me from the thumb-tweedling wait.
  4. It’s ok to drop a physical book. Just pick it up, dust off and continue from where you stopped. With a tablet, pray that the drop only caused a dent on the casing, not the circuit board.
  5. I can splurge on pretty bookmarks (and other book accessories). Physical books give me one more reason to shop. Digital books only give me the option of a bigger or smaller font size.
  6. I can read print for hours without feeling tired. Ebooks make my eyes tear after just one hour.
  7. I can collect autographs for my physical books. Do authors give digital autographs yet?
  8. I love the smell of new books. I can’t smell my ebooks, and it somehow takes the thrill out of a new purchase.
  9. I know how far into the book I am, without having to look at the page number. With ebooks, I lose my mental map of the book’s content.
  10. I love the book cover! It’s a joy to own a book for both its beautiful cover design and intelligent content, and the joy is amplified when I can see my favourite book everyday on my bookshelf.

You’ve Got Mail!

book in the mail canva

I came home the other day to a package from Book Depository sitting on the dining table and I literally pounced on it. One of my recent purchases had finally arrived after more than two weeks, and I just couldn’t wait to discover which one it was.

I’ve always had this thing for receiving books in the mail, ever since I started buying them online. Seeing the package and knowing a brand new book is waiting for me in there always give me the same sense of thrill and anticipation whenever I step into a bookstore.

I know there are some folks out there who don’t like to buy books online because of the longer wait (and because it kills bookstores). Yes, I’ve been through that struggle too. Whenever a new book that I’ve been waiting for hits the store shelves, I have this urge to buy it and start reading it straight away. But the rational part of me tells me that (1) I still have a huge stack of to-be-reads sitting on my bookshelf, (2) I will regret buying the book in its hardcover version especially if it’s a huge tome, and (3) I should wait a while for discounts so that I can use whatever I can save for the next new book. And so, if buying the book online can give me that lead time for reducing the to-be-read stack and saving me some money while allowing me to pre-order a paperback version, why not? It helps too that I like receiving books in the mail.

Having said that, nothing beats walking into a bookstore, discovering a fresh read out of serendipity and then walking out with the new book sitting triumphantly in my bag. Maybe that’s what Amazon has realized about book lovers and why they’ve decided to open brick and mortar stores. I just hope they don’t drown out my favourite local stores like they almost did when they started selling books online. I don’t want to be browsing the same stores online and off.