10 things about: Gerakbudaya's Gareth Richards

Gareth Richards of Gerakbudaya. — Picture by KE Ooi
Gareth Richards of Gerakbudaya. — Picture by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, March 10 — Tucked away at the end of a row of shophouses along busy Jalan Kapitan Keling, smack in the middle of the George Town Heritage Zone, is a small independent bookstore called Gerakbudaya.

The bookstore which opened in 2014 was founded by Gareth Richards, an editor and a true blue book lover.

Unlike most large chain bookstores which carry mostly popular titles and bestsellers, Gerakbudaya’s titles are specially curated by Richards and his team with a special focus on South-east Asian literature.

There are books specific to this region as well as works by local and South-east Asian authors.

Though the shop initially carried English, Malay and Chinese titles, it has since dropped the Chinese section due to low demand.

Gerakbudaya has over 3,000 titles as well as an online bookstore at gerakbudayapenang.com for those who prefer to order online.

Here, Richards talks about how libraries and books played a major role in his life and how Gerakbudaya came into being.

In his own words:

I am one of those old fashioned people for whom books have always been a central part of my life... my mum is from Malacca, my dad is from the UK. When I was nine, we went to the UK to live. We did not have books around the house particularly. Both my parents left school when they were quite young. My mum, for the reason that she was a teenager when the Japanese occupied Singapore so her entire teenage years were disrupted by the war and dad, a bit similarly. So for me, a second home when I was a young kid in London, nine, 10, 11 years old was the library. Whether it was the school library or the library near the house... a wonderful sanctuary, you know, a place for stimulation, a place of imagination, a place of possibilities through books.

I think that's one starting point for me. I'm a huge believer in the value of public libraries. Sadly, in many many countries, including Malaysia, public libraries are under great financial stress, they are considered by the government, who want to cut back on public spending, as expendable, something that can be disposed of. I think that is something very sad, especially for working class young people who don't necessarily have access to books at home.

I originally moved to Penang to be the editor for Areca Books, to work with Khoo Salma. So for about 18 months I edited just for Areca I also helped train a couple of young editors which I'm always happy about. It's about cascading knowledge down the generations.

So, I had my Impress Creative office up here, I had a friend, Queen, she ran Chai Diam Ma in Queen Street. She tried to start a kids' bookshop downstairs, Shu. I was upstairs, she was downstairs. It didn't work for a number of reasons... it was under-capitalised. This is essential. You need a decent size of capitalisation either from your own resources or from investors, of course from investors there's always conditions but you have to have it. That's when downstairs become available. My friend wanted to open another little chic, boutique cafe. I said George Town already has 200 chic boutique cafes but it doesn't have a dedicated bookshop. Not in the Heritage Zone. Areca hadn't yet opened. So I said let me try it. I have enough capital to not have to borrow. What were the downsides at the time? I was given three. First, Malaysians don't read, well, I think that's not the case. Secondly, if people read, they want to read on tablet, or Kindle or whatever. Well, globally, I follow the book trade news very closely, and it seems that in most parts of the world books have made a steady comeback. It seems to be a pattern that people have rediscovered the book as an artefact, the book as an object, it is unique, it's wonderful. The third thing that people said was that ya, but if people do want books, they can order them online on Amazon or whatever. But it's relatively expensive but that helps us so we don't have a very big competitor.

Those were the three downsides and I think we have overcome all three. Malaysians do read. If you look at the profile of our customers, interesting patterns emerge. We have a good range of customers from all ethnic groups with about 20 to 25 per cent of our sales going to visitors. Who's missing in action? Young Chinese, in particular, young Chinese men. If we did a marketing exercise and broke down our demographics and it's an odd thing because it seems to be counter intuitive because often, books are bought by people with higher disposable incomes. It's not an everyday product. But it's counter intuitive. So let's typically take young, middle-class, Chinese, college or university educated, why are they not coming to us, especially young men? It's something about how they use their disposable income. I'm not saying there are none, of course, there are some, they tend to be quite interesting people, they are into Hin Bus Depot, arts and so on.

I think the location is a huge plus. We are very fortunate, we have a very understanding landlord. We are not being ripped off. We'd like a bigger space so we are still actively looking for a second shop but location has to be right. Probably in town. Let the malls have the mainstream shops, I think town attracts interesting people the type of people who come into town, people who are interested in art, heritage and culture. So, yes, in town, ideally, if it's in the same row of shops, we'd open here so we can expand, this bookshop only poetry and fiction, say, and everything else there. We could definitely double the size of fiction and poetry, it's something that's close to my heart and maybe we have a second go at trying to curate a Chinese section again. I'd love to have more books on theatre, photography, art, design, architecture and so on with a South-east Asian focus, not just Malaysian focus but you know, that will take up a lot of space.

Those are ideas and plans that the finances and the spaces have got to be right. You've got to find the right people. Why we've succeeded, I think we have a lot of support. We offer a lot of titles which you cannot find elsewhere in Penang, the kind of indie Malay publishing houses or nobody has as good a section of South-east Asian studies as we do.

One of the definitions of indie, it's not only that you are not part of a big chain, independent also means it has to reflect the value, the preferences of those who run the bookshop. That's the whole point. We have the luxury and the pleasure of curating our own stuff. Do our titles reflect us, our tastes, our preferences? Absolutely. I've been really lucky, Fong Ling, who's been running the shop from day one and Siti, recently, they are all still here. I think it's because they feel a sense of ownership in what they do. They have also grown into this in the beginning.

Basically you come in here, we've got good quality books. The worst people who come in here asking for discounts are Penang Chinese men, not women. I mean you come in here, just got out of your Mercedes and ask for 20 per cent discount. This is the book trade, we work at 30 to 35 per cent margins so if we give you 20 per cent discount, we only make 10 per cent margin so if we sell you a book for RM100, we only make RM10, so let's close shop lah. Do you walk to MPH and ask for discount? Do you go to Borders and ask for discount? No, so what’s the issue? Would you go to E&O and go to the bar and say, got 20 per cent discount? We do give discounts but to young people, to students.

How do we survive? We’ve got three income streams from the bookshop. The shop itself, which still is the dominant stream, probably 80 per cent of our income. But there are two others, the most lively is that we do a lot of outreach book stalls. The biggest event of the year is the George Town Literary Festival, we are the sole bookseller. Three years ago, we used to have to compete with Borders and other people, we were so good that for the last two years, we were the sole booksellers. I tell you why, six months before the festival, when we know who are the writers, Siti will write to every single writer because we are talking about not just famous writers who've got distribution in Malaysia and Asia, but you know, a lot of these writers don't have distribution here, they may be famous in Holland or France and there's nothing a writer likes more when they come to a festival and they see their books on sale. Borders can't do this. MPH can't do this. We write to them and we buy firm, not on consignment. We know, if a writer does well in the festival, if they do a book reading, a good personality, people would buy a book when they meet the author. That's our biggest weekend of the year. That one weekend, we can make what we usually make in a month. We can do a book stall anywhere, for any conference, festival. Anyone can call us. We don't sell a lot but it's good to have a presence there. Especially for people who don't know us. The only thing is, don't charge us for setting up a stall. We are an asset to you. We can think about doing a profit share. We are very much like missionaries wanting to bring books to people but we also can't be stupid. Third one is online. At the moment it's quite small but we have a very, very good website as you can see.