Ask anyone who loves books and they will likely agree that there can never be too many bookstores. Well, there could possibly be too many badly-stocked chain bookstores with ignorant, non-reading staff, but how wonderful if every neighbourhood boasted a really good bookshop.
Of course, that leads us to the question of what makes a “really good bookshop”. The answers would differ depending on whom you ask, and yes, there are book lovers who would say a good bookshop is one that has Danielle Steel’s entire oeuvre on its shelves.
Unfortunately, fans of the romance novelist won’t find her work at Lit Books, the Klang Valley’s latest independent bookstore, located in a decidedly middle-class suburb in Petaling Jaya (PJ), Selangor.
“I don’t want to come off as snobbish,” says Fong Min Hun, one of the owners, “but hers is a genre that we aren’t familiar with, plus it’s just not the sort of writing that appeals to us.”
Fong and his business partner (and wife) Elaine Lau, both in their 30s, are readers of literary fiction and would like to concentrate on books of this genre. However, says Lau, “The goal is to be a good general bookstore. It just makes more business sense. We did consider specialising in just a couple of genres, but the more we thought about it, the more we wondered if such an undertaking would survive.”
Nevertheless, both Lau and Fong agree that they would draw the line at stocking books by the likes of Steele, “instapoets” Lang Leav and Rupi Kaur, and Fifty Shades author E.L. James.
“We just aren’t fans,” admits Lau, “but their books are easily available everywhere anyway. We don’t have endless space and would rather fill our shelves with titles that we enjoy.”
From a practical viewpoint, lit fic is what sells best at Lit Books: “Because we can both actively promote these books,” says Fong.
“When someone says they want an adventure story with a strong protagonist I know which book to point them to. If they want something touching that makes them cry, I can make a recommendation. From what we’ve seen in the two months we’ve been open, our customers appreciate that personal touch.”
He believes that lots of Malaysians want to read, but don’t know what to read.
“Six out of 10 times, when we ask our customers if they need help or recommendations, they will say ‘Yes’. Most people seem to want to be guided and helped.”
Thus far, Lit Books’ punters are, by and large, from the surrounding luxury apartments and the decidedly swanky Tropicana Golf & Country Resort. It’s not the most accessible place via public transport and far from as popular or busy as older, most established suburban neighbourhoods like Bangsar. So why did Lau and Fong choose to set up shop here?
“It’s near where we live,” says Fong. “Honestly, we’re based in Bandar Utama, and we used to work in KL so we know how demoralising the commute can be, getting stuck in traffic jams and so on.”
Their first choice of location was the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Taman Tun Dr Ismail, but rent there was just too much – about RM10,000 for a ground floor lot. Another PJ suburb, Damansara Uptown, was also on the cards, but once again, the rent was prohibitive.
“Then we saw this place and we liked the feel of the place and the rental was agreeable,” explains Fong.
While they may not be paying RM10,000 a month, it must still be quite an undertaking at a time when the cost of living is skyrocketing and everyone is tightening their belts. Why do they think that opening a bookstore is a good idea and what is driving them to succeed?
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” says Fong and launches into an amusing story about the feasibility study he conducted prior to biting the bullet.
Basically, he spent a day visiting bookstores and asking staff what their average daily takings were.
“I used the worst performing store as a benchmark,” says Fong.
“I thought OK, if I do as well as the worst performing bookstore, if I can meet that target I’ll be OK.
“We’re not going to get rich doing this,” he adds, “but we felt there was room for an independent bookstore with well-curated stock.
“I know there are other independent bookstores about – I went to Silverfish (in Bangsar, KL) as a kid, and we go to Bookalicious in the Summit (USJ Mall) – but they’re doing different things.
“Raman (of Silverfish) is concentrating on Malaysian publications and Leon’s focus (at Bookalicious) is on YA and children’s books.”
Lau hastens to add that they are very keen on growing their young adult fiction, children’s, science fiction and fantasy sections.
“We don’t have much of these books at the moment, but it’s not a deliberate effort to exclude, we just lack the expertise.
“We would like to, eventually, hire someone who has that expertise.
“For now, we are doing our best to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. We also get tips from customers.”
So would I go back to Lit Books and why, I would say yes, because they have Alice Munro and Seicho Matsumoto on their shelves and, in my estimation that makes them a pretty good bookshop; also, I like the bright and welcoming look and feel of the space (blonde wood and plenty of natural lighting); and the fact that I can grab a cup of coffee or tea, and just chill out, reading or talking about books to the owners, in a book-filled environment; and, finally (and this is a big plus for me), there’s the shop’s literature-themed merchandise, including tote bags, pencil cases and notebooks – perfect nonbook swag for book lovers.
So yes, I would go back. I will go back. I am planning to go back. All they need is to beef up their children’s and SFF selections and I’d call them a “really good” bookshop.