You might be familiar with famous bookstore brands in Singapore such as Popular and Kinokuniya, but did you know that Singapore’s bookstore industry has more than 100 years of history?
It all started in 1881, when the first bookstore named “Kelly & Walsh” was established in Singapore. Situated at Raffles Place, it was the first Singapore bookstore that published books related to the Southeast Asian cultures. In 1905, Koh Hoon Teck, the founder of Koh and Company, set up Singapore’s first locally-run bookstore. It was located at 90 Bras Basah and sold books, postcards and stationery.
Logo of Kelly & Walsh
NLB Archives, 2018
As the years progressed, bookstores that specialised in producing books in a single language started to emerge. The Commercial Press and Chung Hwa Book Company, established in 1897 and 1912 respectively, were dominant players in the Chinese books industry. Kedai Haji Hashim, founded in 1922 during an age of low literacy within the Malay community, was the preeminent bookstore specialising in selling Malay books. It was based in Kampong Glam, an area known for its strong ties with the Malay community and connections to Malay culture. The establishment of these bookstores specialising in a certain language contributed to the linguistic vibrancy in Singapore’s multilingual and multi-cultural society.
The period between the 1950s and 1970s has been termed the golden era of Singapore’s bookstore industry. Many bookstores and publishing businesses began to spring up like mushrooms after the Second World War. Examples of bookstores that emerged during this era were The Youth Book Company and Everyman Book Centre. The competition in the local textbook market was especially fierce, leading to significant changes in various aspects of the production process like content, illustrations, format and paper quality.
Old bookstores in Singapore
Singapore N Beyond, 2016
In more recent times, bookstores such as Popular and Kinokuniya have become the household brand names that most people flock to when they want to buy books. Today, Popular Group owns a total of 187 bookstores in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Popular Group’s impact on the Singapore book industry has definitely been game-changing and it remains the only surviving company among the five major Chinese bookstores of its founding days. Kinokuniya has an extensive range of international books, with a wide selection of Chinese, Japanese and French titles, catering to the increasingly diverse tastes of Singaporeans.
Kinokuniya at Bugis
Books Kinokuniya, 2019
Niche bookstores such as the Chinatown feminist haven The Moon and the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop in The URA Centre have opened up in the past few years. Both rely on other attractions such as coffee and events to draw clientele. Such concepts are more appealing to the younger generation who are not just interested in the content of the books, but also want to immerse themselves in a pleasant atmosphere when reading books.
Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop
Epigram Books, 2019
However, the demise of many bookstores in recent years is a very pressing concern. Bookstores such as Harris and Borders, which have been around for decades, have closed down in the past few years. Even a major bookstore like Kinokuniya has been downsizing in recent years, as it closed its first and longest running bookstore at Liang Court in April 2019. As more and more consumers turn to online bookstores or e-commerce websites to purchase their books instead of patronising physical bookstores, it appears that the demand for physical bookstores has waned over the years. On top of that, distractions such as smartphones and social media keep people from spending time on books.
From the first ever bookstore established in Singapore till now, the concept and focus of bookstores has evolved tremendously. There is certainly a lot more to explore about Singapore’s rich legacy of bookstore and book publishing and you can find out more from one of the books published by the Singapore Book Publishers Association, titled “Lead Stories”. It will be sold at the upcoming Singapore Book Fair from 31 May to 9 June, held at the Capitol.
“Lead Stories” published by Singapore Book Publishers Association
Singapore Book Publishers Association, 2018
Food for thought: How are physical bookstores still relevant in today’s society?
- Chou Sing Chu Foundation (2016). “A Brief History of Singapore Bookstore Industry”
- Singapore Book Publisher Association (2018). “Lead Stories”
- Olivia Ho (2019). “A chapter closes for Bookstores, but new ones open”. The Straits Times.