How The Pandemic Made Malaysia A Nation Of Bookstore Lovers
When a 2020 nationwide lockdown forced businesses in Malaysia to close physical storefronts, the fate of independently owned bookstores seemed to hang dangerously in the balance.
Prior to the pandemic, a 2019 study found that Malaysians typically only read two books a year on average. But something fascinating happened to Malaysians while they were forced into home isolation: they started to read more. According to the National Library of Malaysia, the borrowing of digital reading materials doubled from 2019 to 2020.
Bookstores that were able to move online saw a resurgence in sales. Pelita Dhihin Bookstore, a Petaling Jaya-based bookstore specialising in local and international Islamic literature and philosophy, saw an increase of 30% in sales in 2020 compared to 2019.
It is amid this promising rise in demand that some bricks-and-mortar bookstores have been able to keep their doors open, while new players have been encouraged to open storefronts. Tokosue started as an online store on Shopee (a leading online shopping platform in Southeast Asia) over the pandemic and did so well that founder Sue Ahmad was encouraged to pursue her dream of starting a physical bookstore. Now located in Wisma Central shopping centre, Tokosue focuses on self-published books and DIY zines, and runs small music gigs, art events and readings.
Riwayat Bookstore, which also opened over the pandemic, is housed in a pre-war building in Kuala Lumpur’s downtown. Founded by a duo of book collectors, Riwayat primarily highlights rare, used, and vintage books, with a focus on Malaysian and South-East Asian history, culture, and politics.
Bookstores are also surviving because they’re often also community hubs that build a following around particular interests, languages, genres, political leanings, or identities. Moontree House, a small bookshop tucked away on the outskirts of the touristic hub of Central Market, for example, is home to Chinese-language books on feminism, as well as a tiny cafe. A small poster underneath the shop’s sign features an illustration of a woman in a cheongsam (a Chinese dress), and fittingly reads ‘DRINK COFFEE N’ SMASH PATRIARCHY’.
Balai Buku Raya, located in the Zhongshan Building (a KL-based artist collective), has a loyal following of customers drawn to its collection of rare and out-of-print books and magazines in both Malay and English. Inside the one-room bookstore, antique books spill from the shelves and are stacked on floors and tables.
To find Kuala Lumpur’s most interesting bookstores, you’ll have to dig underneath the surface. That means turning away from large malls such as KLCC and Pavilion and adventuring to find niche and humble bookstores hidden in off-road shop lots and artist hubs. You might not always find the book you’re looking for, but the books you do find will almost certainly surprise and delight you.
Lily Jamaludin is a Malaysian writer, poet, and NGO worker