One can now say “meet me at the Moon” and not have to go any further than Chinatown in Singapore, where a street of Sichuan restaurants and hostels welcomes an unusual new addition: independent bookstore The Moon.

At the shop, which launched in September, at least half the books are by female writers.

Owner Sarah Naeem, 27, got the idea for the bookstore two years ago when she invited her Singaporean friend Lee Jiaqian, 25, to visit Readings, a second-hand bookshop “full of dust and character” in her home town of Lahore, Pakistan.

They were browsing the philosophy section when they realised they could not find any books by female philosophers.

This seemed remiss – but if so, they realised, they ought to do something about it.

“It’s easy to complain about the things around you,” says Naeem. “But that’s not the same as consciously making an effort to change them.”

The Singapore permanent resident, who moved here to study eight years ago, quit her job in client service at a branding agency last year and decided she would fulfil her dream of starting a bookstore where the shelves would be stocked with works by women and writers of colour.

At The Moon, for instance, Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo’s novel Ponti shares a shelf with Korean-American writer Krys Lee’s tale of exile, How I Became A North Korean, and American speculative fiction writer Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

Lee Jiaqian, who had a marketing job, but, like Naeem, was so stressed by it that she kept falling sick, came on board as Naeem’s “right-hand woman” and eventually quit her job, too, to focus on The Moon full time.

“I would have regretted it if I didn’t try it,” she says.

The Moon – named after a flight of whimsy – takes up the first and third floors of a shophouse at 37 Mosque Street. Besides books, the first floor houses a cafe.

The third floor – referred to as “Over The Moon” – is an event space that can be rented for performances and private functions.

A few weeks ago, it hosted Stupid Cupid, a play by Singaporean theatre company Patch And Punnet.

The bookstore is full of calibrated touches from Naeem and Lee, from the cafe wallpaper of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother to the jazz and blues piped in the background to the precise level of mood lighting.

It is “terrifying”, they say, to open a bookstore in a market that has not been favourable for the book trade.

A recent casualty of the retail slump was four-year-old independent bookshop Booktique, which shuttered at Singapore’s CityLink Mall last year, although it has since been reborn in a series of pop-up book fairs around the island.

Staying profitable remains a challenge, say other local independent bookstores.

High rentals and operating costs make it tough going, says Kenny Leck, owner of Tiong Bahru bookstore BooksActually, which is trying to raise funds to buy its own space. It has raised S$20,000 (RM60,104) so far – 1% of its S$2mil goal (RM6mil).

Failure is “not an option” for Naeem, who took a S$150,000 (RM450,735) loan from her family, which runs a textile business in Pakistan, and also dipped into her savings to open The Moon.

What they want to build in The Moon is a place that can become the heart of a community.

“This has to be an experience,” says Naeem.

“It’s not about you buying a book and leaving – you could find that online. It’s about that sense of warmth and comfort, and expanding your horizons.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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