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Sunday December 25, 2011

Novel finds from The Penang Bookshelf

A Penang-based bibliophile is helping book lovers ferret out rare, used or out-of-print books on Malaysia and Asia.

I FIRST stumbled on The Penang Bookshelf, an online book retailer, when I was researching Yixing teapots and their effect on tea for an article. There are so few authoritative books or articles on the subject that are written in English. Naturally, I was thrilled to find tea lovers raving about The Beauty Of Chinese Yixing Teapots (2001) at online tea forums, penned by a Penang-based author, Lim Kean Siew, no less. But the going rate for the secondhand book at major online stores ranged from US$138 (RM435) to US$395 (RM1,246)! After some futile calls to local bookstores and the Singapore publisher, I tracked down the wife of the writer (Lim passed away in 2007) who directed me to The Penang Bookshelf, which stocks a few copies of the book.

Set up in 2010 by Penang-based William Knox, the Bookshelf specialises in old and new books on Malaysia and Asia.

“The idea is to provide Malaysians with books they can’t get here and for people overseas who can’t find books about Malaysia,” says Britain-born Knox who moved to Malaysia in 2009.

Treasured titles: Some of the rare books that The Penang Bookshelf sells online include these 1935 and 1939 copies of the Penang Information Guide and a 1945 edition of the Handbook Of Spoken ‘Bazaar’ Malay. The Penang guides, published by the Municipal Council and given away free, gives a picture of what Penang was like before WWII. The handbook of spoken Malay was written by J.N. McHugh, an Irishman working for the Malayan Police. The book was issued to the returning Allied forces after WWII so that they could pick up the language as quickly as possible. — Zhafaran Nasib/The Star

Aside from sniffing out rare, out-of-print books or speciality publishers, Knox also helps customers track down specific books for a small fee. Evocative of rare and used books online sellers like US-based Alibris or Britain-based Biblio, the Bookshelf attracts bookaholics, collectors and academics alike.

Compelling titles

Knox’s collection covers a wide medley of fiction and non-fiction: from history, politics and religion to anthropology, travelogues and even romance novels with Asia as the setting.

Among the noteworthy picks is an original edition of Hail Penang written in the 1920s by a British journalist who worked for the Straits Echo, a Chinese-owned newspaper in Penang.

“What makes this book unique among memoirs of British colonial life in Malaya was that it was written from the vantage point of the author, George Bilainkin, who was not a British Government officer, planter or businessman,” explains Knox, 63, during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur. According to Knox, in his account of life in Penang during that era, Bilainkin, an astute observer, peels off the veneer of civilised colonialism and tells it like it is.

“For example, there was one story of him going to the E&O Hotel with a local and none of his English acquaintances would come up to talk to him because they couldn’t understand why he would be seen in public with a native,” Knox adds. Published in 1932, the book has since been reprinted by Penang-based Areca Books and tops the bestseller list on Knox’s website. He sells the original (RM865) and the reprint (RM41) editions.

Intriguing out-of-print titles include the book Chinese Muslims In Malaysia by Osman Chuah, a Chinese Muslim convert who set out to promote Islam and document the experiences of his fellow converts. The book retails for RM545 at the Bookshelf while a used copy on is going for US$303 (RM956). And history buffs are sure to drool over the rare tome, The Golden Khersonese: Studies In The Historical Geography Of The Malay Peninsula Before AD1500 by Paul Wheatley. The author pieced together the historical geography of the peninsula before reliable written records were available from the mid-16th century onwards.

A real classic of Peninsular Malaysian ornithology, this book is the fifth of a five-volume set which was published between 1927 and 1976. A collector’s item for Malaysian bird aficionados!

But what gives the Bookshelf its edge is its competitive pricing.

For instance, a brand new copy of the Yixing teapot book costs RM315 at Knox’s site while offers a copy (as of Dec 23) for US$295 (RM944). A hard cover version of The Golden Khersonese retails at RM1,573 at the Bookshelf compared with between RM1,840 and RM2,400 at

How does Knox keep his prices low? And in this Internet age, why would we buy from him instead of direct from the Internet?

“I buy in bulk so that can mean my prices are cheaper,” he explains. Knox also set up a brick-and-mortar bookstore that doubles as storage space in a shoplot on Armenian Street in George Town. “And as a specialist, I’ve all the books under one roof, which cuts down the time customers may take in trying to find such books.”

Knox sources his book from international online stores and from Britain. Last year, he dug up some fascinating titles during a private book auction in Britain.

“I constantly have customers coming to my store or sending me e-mails saying, ‘I never knew people wrote about these subjects.’”

Half of Knox’s customers are Malaysians who know their books but found it hard to get hold of the books elsewhere or Malaysians who live overseas and are interested in books on Malaysia.

He also gets regulars from Sabah and Sarawak who have little access to major bookstores.

“I’m very keen to bring back to Malaysia books about the country that you can’t find here any more,” he adds. “Therefore, I’m quite sad when some person from Australia buys the book and takes it out of the country again.”

What others think

Hailing from a Peranakan background, Lim Kim Chye of Taiping, Perak, finds the many titles on the Peranakan culture sold by Knox “personally gratifying”.

“These books tell the stories of the Chinese immigrants who flocked to Malaya and made the country what it is today,” says Lim. But the self-taught naturalist and avid birdwatcher finds the range of nature books quite limited.

“Having been interested in nature since my school days, the two books that I remember vividly are not on the list: In Malay Forests by Sir William George Maxwell (Bukit Larut, formerly named as Maxwell Hill was named after the former British Resident Assistant in Perak) and Tigers Of Trengganu by Arthur Locke. Maybe these books are out of print and hard to get hold of,” he adds.

“However, the anthropology/sociology section is quite good, with titles of little known but interesting subjects on the Chewong indigenous group, for example, and the folklore and popular religion of the Malay Peninsula, etc.”

In today’s world of giant books chains and even bigger and less discriminating Internet retailers, books lovers lament the loss of small, independent bookstores and the personal connections.

Which is why it was quite easy to find satisfied customers of The Penang Bookshelf – it seems Knox goes the extra mile to make those personal connections with customers via e-mails, a blog and monthly newsletters. Through his blog (, especially, customers get a glimpse of his book-finding adventures and rare finds.

With little prompting, one of The Penang Bookshelf’s regular customers, Terengganu-based A. Munir Othman, waxes lyrical about the books he gets from Knox.

“I’m an avid reader but William (Knox) specialises in hard-to-get books,” says Othman, 55, a semi-retiree from the oil and gas business.

Through Knox, Othman reconnected with books he grew up with like Shamus Frazer’s The Crocodile Dies Twice (1971) and Pending Permata (1963) and the famous English-Malay dictionaries by R.O. Winstedt published in the early 1900s.

“I’m seeing pieces of my past in these books. I owned a two-volume dictionary by Winstedt, inherited from my late father. Because of Knox, now I own what is probably the precursor to the two volumes, and a history book by him too,” says Othman.

“Others may leave behind land and gold as legacy, I’ll leave these books and hope some day my grandchildren will rediscover the wonder that I felt in these pages once. And may these stories take them to a time and place that is no more.”

“It is e-mails from customers like Othman that makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing,” Knox sums up.

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