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Sunday December 25, 2011

The accidental bookseller

It is a love for the rare printed words rather than commerce that drives this man.

WILLIAM Knox never set out to be a bookseller. A lawyer practising Britain for half his life, Knox devoted the last 15 years to community peace work in Sri Lanka during the conflict era.

“It was the worst paid job in my life but it’s the place where I could be perfectly honest about myself and what I was doing, and still be effective in my work,” says the soft-spoken gentleman who is a Quaker (a movement with Christian roots that began in England in the 17th century).

Known for their belief in non-violence and peace work, Quakers have been pivotal in founding international, non-religious relief agencies like Oxfam and the Save the Children Fund. Together with local Sri Lankans, Knox set up an NGO called Peace and Community Action.

Bibliophile haven: Retiree William Knox loves reading about the places he has lived in. — Zhafaran Nasib/The Star

Towards the end of his stint in Sri Lanka, cupid struck. Knox met and fell in love with a Penangite while on transit in Singapore’s Changi Airport. After he and Susan got married, they moved to her hometown in 2009 and looked forward to a peaceful retirement.

Knox says that he’s been a book lover all his life with a particular interest in books about the place where he lives. Not surprisingly, he comes from a rather bookish, literary background: his father was a journalist; his aunt, a Booker Prize winner; and his grandfather, a newspaper editor. Knox also spent a large part of his childhood in Asia when his father worked as a foreign correspondent in Singapore, Hong Kong and India for British newspapers like The Observer and The Telegraph.

But after settling down here, Knox discovered to his dismay that it wasn’t easy finding bookshops selling a wide range of literature, both newly published and old stuff about Malaysia and Asia. He scoured used bookshops, flea markets, online bookstores and eBay to no avail.

“Personally, I like reading books on politics, history, anthropology, religion and fiction,” says Knox, 63, adding that, “You’d be surprised how much you can learn about a place and its culture from fiction.”

“A fiction writer tends to look for more ways to engage the readers and give flavours and insights into the place compared with writers who target a limited market in academics, for example,” he explains at a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

Some of Knox’s favourite titles on Penang and Malaysia include Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain (2008, longlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize) and Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory (2005, longlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize).

As his stash of books piled up, Knox decided to set up a small bookstall at the once-a-month arts and culture-themed Little Penang Street Market so he could get rid of some books and acquire more to read. The online retail arm,, set up in November 2010, was a natural progression for Knox.

Once he went online and became more than an amateur collector, Knox began stocking a broad range of books and now constantly picks his customers’ brains to get an idea what they want to read.

“For example, I never realised British romantic novelist Barbara Cartland wrote a book called Paradise In Penang though she’s probably never been within a million miles of Penang,” he chuckles. “But I’m prepared to stock romantic novels – and surprisingly, it’s selling quite well and I keep having to re-stock it!”

One recent acquisition, in September, was a large collection of rare Malay language books in the Jawi and Rumi scripts.

Sourcing for good titles or rare editions has turned out to be quite an adventure for Knox.

“What surprises me is how quickly books disappear off the face of the map,” says Knox. “For some titles, I’m selling the only ones available on the Internet.” One of the rare books he bought over eBay was a book that teaches Malay that was anglicized and written by an anonymous writer in 1930s.

Ironically, Knox finds it easier to find used books in tiptop condition overseas than in Malaysia.

“I think it has to do with the weather and humidity. Books that have been taken back to the UK or left there are normally in better condition,” he explains.

To date, Knox’s book collection has burgeoned to over 1,500 but only about 300 titles are posted online. He painstakingly describes each book in a few paragraphs in addition to the usual publishers’ blurbs. Customers have bought books they had never even heard of because of what Knox had written.

“Writing the blurbs is very time-consuming but satisfying,” he smiles. “I spent most of my life as a book buyer and I understand how much the extra touches mean to a customer. So far, I’ve never had a book returned yet.

“But one of the sad things about doing this business is I don’t read as much as I used to,” he laments. “I keep saying I must make time to read....”

Knox isn’t exactly raking in money from his book business. In fact, he takes in only an average RM500 a month, minus the overhead. But that doesn’t matter, Knox explains. “About a year ago, I knew nothing about books about Malaysia or Asia. It’s fascinating that now, I can actually speak quite authoritatively on the subject when someone comes into my bookstore,” he says. “Coming to a new country, this (The Penang Bookshelf) has also given me an identity in the community and is a great way for me to meet new people and make new friends.”

One of the many Kodak moments that made it worthwhile for Knox?

“Just recently, a couple of 12, 13-year-olds came into the shop and asked me, ‘Can you sell us some history books that don’t tell us the type of history we can get from our history textbooks?’” Knox happily sat down with the kids and started pulling out books like readable biographies. His customers aren’t just old folks who grew up in colonial times. They are basically book lovers who are looking to broaden their interest or world views.

“Besides, if the business winds up and people stop buying, at least I’ve got a library about Malaysia to read....”