A store all her own

  • Living
  • Saturday, 01 Feb 2014

Bookstore owners, book buyers, book collectors, book lovers, book readers, we all help books live in our own way.

THERE are people who find books interesting, so they read them. If you are reading this column now, you most likely are one of these people.

And there are also people who find books interesting and precious, so they not only read but also collect them. If you are one of these people, books thank you for loving them.

Then there are also people who find so books interesting that they read and collect them, and eventually open a bookstore of their own. If you are such a person, I salute you, comrade, for I was once such a person myself.

I fell in love with books even before I entered secondary school. The state library in Kota Kinabalu, a majestic building back in the early 1980s, used to be my second home. Later, when I was a university student in the United States, I talked my way into the alluring world of Borders, working part-time as a shelf stocker. I smelt like books when I returned home from Borders, although that fragrance, unfortunately, would be ruined by the smell of burritos and tacos on the weekends when I spent my time cooking and serving in a Mexican restaurant. All the time I spent rolling up enchiladas and melting cheese for nachos, I imagined myself in the Borders store. Either way, I was happy, contentedly happy.

So happy was I, in fact, that I ended up opening a bookstore in Kota Kinabalu. You’re nuts, you might say, to even think there would be enough book-loving customers to support such a notion. That didn’t matter. What mattered was my dream, a rather irresistible one, and I thought myself jovial and contagious enough to turn anyone into a bibliophile, to make reading a custom and quirk of that small town.

I didn’t have a clue, but the bookstore still stands right in the heart of Kota Kinabalu, though it is now in the better hands of a more strategic and resilient person. That crazy phase in my life, when I was naïve enough to turn my belief that books are an essential part of any life worth living into a reality, still stirs once in a while, and when a good friend gave me a wonderful book called The Little Bookstore Of Big Stone Gap, I found solace and consonance.

“People who like to read love being in massed assemblages of books: bookstores, libraries, homes where the walls are lined with shelves and spines,” says Wendy Welch, the author who, along with her husband, got sick of their high flying jobs and decided on a whim to start a bookstore and made it up as they went along in a little community where the store gets a frowned-upon, feigned welcome.

I could have been a good friend or a soul mate of Welch. Like me, Welch could no longer stand renting the space inside her skin by allowing her bookstore to be merely a wishful dream. She bought a large, beautiful, scary home, leaving out her dream, just like mine, of living above a bookstore.

“Following your ignorance is a bliss,” Welch says, and I so agree. While she started off with her own book collection, about 500 titles, I went further. I called booksellers and spent a fortune stocking up new arrivals and bestsellers I thought would thrill my customers. The day the rent was due was also the day the books arrived, all flown in from KL, making the price of ignorance more palatable.

Everything that Welch and her husband went through resonates with my own experience as a bookstore owner, and every one of her anecdotes justified my year of living recklessly. I was merely 24 years old then, and in my first job that, thankfully, paid well enough to half-sponsor my madness. “Humans have a natural proclivity to not step outside our comfort zones,” Welch soothes in the book, as if detecting my disgruntlement.

It seems to me to be one of life’s great paradoxes that my experience as a bookstore owner – even if only for a little while – helped pave the way to the next phases of my life. Despite all the similarities, aspirations and resonances Welch and I share, we did not end up at the same spot. While Welch and her husband have gone on to live their dream of living large in a small-town bookstore, I am now merely a customer.

Many people, other than the authors, contribute to the making of a book. Welch allows stories to be safely told in her house, while I lend my ears. Which role is better? Sometimes, the questions are complicated and the answers are simple – any role that helps to rekindle reading is good, not better.

Kudos to Welch and her husband, Jack, for their endeavour and their wonderful book. And a round of cheers to all aspiring book lovers dreaming of opening a store of their own. We all help books live in our own way.

Abby Wong had the immense pleasure of reading the enchanting The Little Bookstore Of Big Stone Gap thanks to her dear friend Kit, merchandise manager of Kinokuniya Bookstores, Suria KLCC. Since then, the book and I have tied the knot and we are inseparable.

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A store all her own


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