Interview with Anthony Koh (Owner of Booktique)

With the multiple closures of bookstores over the past decade, times are trying for book lovers and bookstore owners alike. It’s not easy to be haunted by memories of the smooth polished wooden accents of Page One’s shelves, or the starry carpet that covered the floor in the children’s section of Borders, when it still was everyone’s favourite nook at Wheelock. They were a quiet shelter for many readers, before indie bookstores started dotting our map.

Sure, our libraries do exist, but often, one is washed over with torrential waves of nostalgia, a sense of loss and a never-ending need to find a new home of fresh new books for perusal. For many, reading involves physicality. Spines of books wait to be broken into. The scent of fresh ink wafts at every page turned, and there is nothing quite like the texture of paper in between your fingers, but bookstores are no longer ships anchored in our docks; many flee away from high rental prices.

We speak to Anthony Koh, whose brainchild is Booktique Where Writers Shop, a popup store along the everyday flurry of humans in Citylink Mall. From the very start, Anthony seems to be quite the risk taker. The idea of a traveling bookstore came about partly because Anthony quit his job seven years ago for a complete career change—from a corporate profession to taking shifts in the airport selling pots of Tiger Balm, all in the name of allowing time for freelance writing.

Nine months later, his new career took flight, and today, part of what he does involves facilitating workshops for aspiring writers.

“I find that the next natural thing for me to do is to set up a bookshop for the writing community,” explains Anthony. The bookstore materialised last year as tiny book fairs, going to places that could spare a few square metres for Anthony’s humble collection of carefully curated books.

The process of cherry-picking books for sale is no easy task either. Anthony goes through multiple synopses and book reviews from readers—“from the readers, not the critics,” he emphasises—before deciding on anything. It also seems that Anthony loves putting the spotlight on underdogs; he has a distinct section in his store for self-published authors, amongst many titles not known to the general public.  “When they’re not popular, it doesn’t mean that they’re no good. They just didn’t have the chance to meet the right people.”

He chooses books which he thinks hold values that would matter to readers, as well as ones catered to a niche audience (How Gardens Inspire Writers), and stays far from bestsellers, critically acclaimed or otherwise. “You won’t see 50 Shades of Grey,” he reassures, and in place we spot a well-crafted, explicitly illustrated popup Kama Sutraguide, much to the glee of many teenagers from neighbouring schools.

Over time, the collection grew, and it just made more sense for Booktique to have a temporary space for a slightly longer period of time. Its first store was at The Cathay, and today it opens its doors right in the heart of City Hall. Most books are carefully wrapped and propped up on clean wooden crates and shelves. The aesthetics of the store is easy on the eyes, and the purity is occasionally interspersed with lamps of autumnal tones and cut out wooden trees. Everything beckons at the very hearts of bibliophiles.

“When they walk in, it’s basically a discovery… It’s the beauty of the bookstore to introduce new books to people, instead of what the media tells you to read,” says Anthony.

But is opening a bookstore at such a technologically advanced time too much of a gamble? How does one fight all the convenience that is the book reader and pdf copies of books readily available online? For Anthony, it was never all that much about business. Like the founder of Toms shoes, his idea was simple; if he doesn’t sell the books, he’s going to give them away to friends, or keep them anyway.

“Customers usually like to ask me: ‘people are closing bookstores, you are opening?!’ The common question is about fear. Of course I have my fears, but I have my purpose too,” says Anthony, “so when I have a stronger purpose, the fear is lessened.”

And maybe, just maybe, our fears are lessened too—it helps when the curator worships the same things you do. After all, we finally have another immediate source of books to feed our hunger for books, and this ship seems like it’s going to be parked in our docks for some time.

- J


Our books are available at Booktique: 1 Raffles Link, #B1-17A, CityLink Mall.