Bookstores past and present

Mega chain bookstores have a bad rep in the US, where they’re accused of, among other things, exerting disproportionate control over the book publishing industry, putting independent bookstores out of business and promoting mainstream tastes at the exclusion of all else.

In the Singapore context, however, I can only express undying gratitude to the two mega chain bookstores that set up shop here in the last ten years: Borders in 1997/8, I believe, followed by Kinokuniya’s opening of a megastore in 1999. Before that, what did we have to put up with? A plethora of Times the Bookshop outlets — with their countless shelves of marketing, self-help and children’s books and little else — and a smattering of MPH outlets, which was marginally better but far from being a real bookstore.

And it wasn’t as if I had terribly esoteric reading tastes. I remember ploughing through the shelves at Times and MPH when I was in school, trying to find some solid literary fiction or science fiction/fantasy tomes, only to be confronted with the same mind-numbing selection of bestsellers and marketing nonsense. Thank goodness for Sunny Bookstore at Far East Plaza, which had a far better selection, assuming you could put up with the fact that all their books were stamped irrevocably on the opening pages with the purchase and rental prices.

And then Borders opened, and Kinokuniya showed us what it was really made of, and there was cause to hope again.

I don’t know anything about the book retail industry, in Singapore or elsewhere, but I can imagine that the reason that I can find all sorts of esoteric titles at Borders and Kinokuniya, not to mention a wider selection of regular fiction than anything Times or MPH together used to offer, has something to do with the fact that they benefit from economies of scale and such things that smaller outfits like Times and MPH don’t. And I’m not saying we should support the big chains exclusively because they bring us all kinds of books that small ones don’t; there are independent bookstores like Tango Mango at Tanglin Mall that are well worth the average consumer’s time and patronage, assuming that their interest is best served by the kinds of books the independent bookstore specialises in. But I don’t mourn Times’ and MPH’s consequent decline because I don’t think they added anything in particular to the local book scene (unless one is supposed to patronise them sheerly out of some nationalistic impulse).

Anyway, what prompted this little jaunt down memory lane was the fact that I spent an hour in Kinokuniya last night doing research for a job interview, which is something I couldn’t’ve done in the pre-Borders/Kino days. It wasn’t research I could’ve done at the library, either at least not without a great deal more inconvenience. Which makes me think I ought to write a post about what’s annoying about the National Library’s loan collections next…

2 Comments so far

  1. jer (unregistered) on January 19th, 2006 @ 1:33 pm

    My only gripe about major bookstore chains is the fact that their catalogs are generally not avaliable online. Kinokuniya has done well in this area, just hoping Borders will catch up on it.

  2. Tym (unregistered) on January 19th, 2006 @ 2:29 pm

    Oh, I don’t mind because I usually check out the book on first, if I need to. Then it’s just a matter of finding it on the Borders/Kino bookstore shelves or, if it’s not there, to bug the staff about it.

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