How long more can bookshops in Malaysia survive?

NOVEMBER 7 — I swear to God, every time a bookshop closes a unicorn dies. And many unicorns have been dying.

I recall feeling a disturbance in the horned horse force when MPH in 1 Utama shuttered after God knows how many years. 

I recall frequenting the place each time I went to that mall. I loved the award-winning books arranged into a pyramid at the front; I loved the colourful children’s section with a centre area half the size of a futsal court; I loved the fact that it occupied two floors. 

That was such an awesome place I almost wanted to book a deluxe room with breakfast for a night.

Then it shut down and I don’t know what that area is now; maybe half a dozen kiosks selling bubble tea?

Then last year the Times bookshop in CITTA mall, near my place, closed too. I happened to visit on the last day it was still open. 

The guy told me business was so poor they had no choice. Unfortunately, each time I walk by the Times outlet at Atria Damansara, it looks similar. The place looks so empty I can’t tell if it’s selling paperbacks or furniture.

The only bookshop which seems to be weathering the hard times is Popular, but I suspect it’s because they’re really a stationery shop which moon-lights by selling books. 

When you check out the space devoted to non-books vis-à-vis that dedicated to books, this conclusion can’t be denied. 

It’s a bit like how most Shell stations nowadays are really mini gourmet cafes which also happen to have fuel pumps.

Then of course there’s the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Kinokuniya in Suria KLCC. Now that is a bona fide bookshop. 

Nobody needs an app to augment reality when they’re there, especially the Literature section which, unfortunately, looks too clean to have been touched much lately. 

This shop is also the only place where checking the availability of a book feels woke; nobody ever goes to Popular to ask which shelf David Mitchell’s latest masterpiece is located.

A special mention must be made of independent book-sellers. Silverfish in Bangsar is one, Amcorp Mall has one upstairs, and I know of another shop tucked away in Summit Mall. 

Kudos to these outlets and you can always find a few rare precious literary gems there. Having said that, the last time I visited one of these outlets, it was obvious they’re struggling too. If only such shops can be kept alive by the sheer passion and love of their owners for books.

Finally, there is the “parking lot” type of bookshop like BookXcess where the space is generally larger than average and the prices are comparatively low.

The excitement of going to such places, however, dies down after about half an hour scouring the shelves because you realise, yikes, all the books fit a certain criteria or "pattern." (See Note 1)

The demise of PayLess was another indicator something was wrong. How come so few people were interested in getting top-quality titles (albeit second-hand) at super-bargain prices? Can you imagine an outlet selling second-hand iPhones and Samsung Galaxys for RM50 or less? 

Malaysian bookshop sitrep as of now: Major bookstores either closing down or devoting 70 per cent of their space to selling headphones or off-loading 30 copies of the same title on one shelf?

So, what’s with the crisis with books and reading in Malaysia?

Your guess is probably better than mine.

Are more people buying books online? Probably. Ironic, though, that just when outlets like MPH and Kinokuniya are trying to reach more customers via the Web, former book giants like Amazon no longer feature books on their homepage. 

So are readers riding the digital wave or is there a redefinition of "books" and "reading" or is Amazon doing their blue ocean thing? Maybe a Harvard case study is needed here but who would, uh, read it?

Maybe people today generally like reading less? I’m sure there’s some truth here. It’s hard for Malcolm Gladwell or Suzanne Collins to compete with WhatsApp and Twitter, innit? 

Heck, even Facebook is losing out to photo-heaven Instagram; how poetic is it when the formerly #1 app in the world with the word "book" in its name is now officially “only for old people”?

Furthermore, if someone has spent thousands on the latest Huawei, chances are they’ll prefer to spend their time looking at things on their screen which, uh, "moves" and make sounds.

When I run my speed reading classes I often ask the students what they’re reading at the moment. 

When the silence gets too thick, I water the question down and ask, “Okay, how many of you read books? And I don’t mean Facebook?” I may as well have asked how many of them watch TV3 regularly.

By the way, do you know how many books the average Malaysian reads? The best estimates put it at half. Yes, that’s right. This means that, as a nation, we pick up Fifty Shades of Grey, read up to twenty-five shades, and don’t touch the book again until next year (see Note 2).

In my book? That’s just sad. Even sadder than dying unicorns.

Note 1: Having said that, BookXcess seems to be riding a fresh wave; they are almost the only book name still opening cool new stores every now and then, the latest being in Setia Alam. I quibble with the book selection but even I can’t help being surprised by their market growth.

Note 2: All kudos to Fixi, though, which appears to have inspired the love of reading among the young Malay community.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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