Niche bookstores are holding their own, even as COVID-19 hurts businesses

D Kanyakumari

KUALA LUMPUR (CNA) – While COVID-19 has hurt the viability of many businesses, independent bookstores in Malaysia are holding on to their customers, thanks to loyal bibliophiles who prefer old school print on paper.

Amid the pandemic and its movement restrictions, regular customers are purchasing more publications, sometimes via online platforms. In June, following movement restrictions throughout Malaysia, well-known bookstore chain MPH Group Sdn Bhd closed many of its outlets. Its CEO Donald Kee said then in a statement that the company would shift from a brick and mortar business model to a digitalised ecosystem.

Despite the challenging business environment, smaller bookstores appear to have found their niche selling specific collections.

Gerak Budaya bookstore manager Wong Ho Wai told CNA that his establishment in Petaling Jaya, Selangor has over the years won over a group of readers who prefer a hard copy book rather than an e-book or a Kindle.

“I have been a bookstore manager here since 2017. From my time here, I realise that most people still prefer reading physical books.

“Of course this is probably also due to the average age of our customer base which is around 40 and above. Our younger customers are usually journalists and those who come seeking for academic materials,” he said.

Similarly, Moontree House in Kuala Lumpur which sells only Chinese book titles told CNA that it does not foresee customers shifting to e-books any time soon.

Store owner Law Yee Wan said that when it comes to Chinese books, the following of readers can last for decades.

“Chinese (books) readership is very small, especially in Malaysia and these small groups of people identify bookstores and continue buying the books they need from there.

“I opened my bookstore in 2010 and now 10 years later, I still have the same 20 odd customers come to me when they need their supply of books. Of course, the readers are ageing and the titles they choose will differ but they will continue coming,” she said.

In addition to the regulars, Law said there are “come and go” customers who tend to be younger.

“They come here to get their academic supplies. That market is another one that would still need printed books for at least another 10 years,” she said.

While the Movement Control Order (MCO) had affected the viability of many businesses, bookstores with a niche following saw increased sales instead.

“Through MCO, we are doing online methods of selling and our website has been doing a lot better than before,” said Wong of Gerak Budaya.

He explained that people were still worried about coming out to shop. So they bought books online and had them delivered instead.

Print is still the preferred medium.

“About two years ago we tried to sell e-books… Honestly, it did not do well at all. For us and our readers, it’s the traditional print on paper for sure,” he said.

Intelligentsia Book Station owner Cheah Moon Chung said that many who frequented his 27-year old bookstore had requested for him to sell his books via an online platform.

“But we haven’t done this online sales before. So we use our existing website for our readers to get quotes for their books then call us and place orders.

“Then we prepare the books for them so that they can just come and pick up without having to spend time in the bookstore,” he said.

He said this method of sales did extremely well during the MCO because many of his regulars were school-going children seeking Chinese book titles.

“This concept made it easier for the parents as they felt it was more secure for their children to shop this way,” he explained.