The owner of Modern Book Store is Mr Tan. He has been there for the past 30 years.
It helps to have expertise in the trade
This bookshop belonged to his father, and he took over when his father died. “I had no choice,” he says with a shrug. He had been helping his father run the shop, and he grew to know the ins-and-outs of this trade better than any other trade.
His deep knowledge of selling stationery is part of a lineage. His grandfather also sold stationery and books, but they dropped the books because “not many people buy books anymore; they don’t use paper.”
Competition and prices
Mr Tan’s shop is a tiny space crammed with shelves and stock. In the same building, Popular bookshop – a chain store – spreads out happily with its far wider variety of stationery in a fancier, air-conditioned floor space.
How does Mr. Tan hold his fort?
He keeps his prices similar to the bigger stores. “Cannot be too expensive or people will come once, and they won’t come back again.”
His stock has stayed the same despite the decades, a time capsule of things that define our school and work experience: highlighters, staplers, glue, and post-it notes.
When you are competing on product and price alone, it can be hard to keep the sales afloat with competition. There is not much to differentiate you. A memorable brand can help you stand out.
Previously, Mr Tan’s strongest brand was his personal brand – a familiar and friendly shopkeeper to all – but his customers are growing old, and with them, his brand.
Customers: traditional generation replaced by savvy millenials
His inventory remains unchanged even though the crowd has transformed. Foot traffic has dwindled considerably. Mr Tan explains: “Last time, around ten to twenty years ago, still got people come. Lunch hour, office workers come to pick up what they want.”
However, this habit seems to have shifted. How do you spend your lunch hour? Perhaps we are on our phones shopping online instead of visiting nearby stores. Or going to yoga classes.
The urgency of picking up stationery in this digital age may have waned.
Stable sources of revenue such as B2B bulk orders
Mr Tan used to regularly supply stationery in bulk to the nearby offices, and this created an assuring source of revenue. However, these bulk orders have been cut down to just one or two offices who continue to use his service loyally.
This is not only because of ecommerce options, but the new and younger staff who man the operations. “New people have taken over in the offices, and now they order online so they don’t need to walk down here to choose what they want and buy.”
Do you know where your office gets its stationery? What role is your office playing in changing the retail landscape?
Small appetite for big changes
Mr Tan is hanging on to his business and it will keep running until it has served its original purpose and go extinct. He sees few avenues for change in such a small space at his age. The strength of his business will depend on customers who appreciate the familiarity of his service in the mom-and-pop store.
“It is up to the individual if they want to come here or go to other bookshops.”
The struggle of running a small retail business today
I asked Mr Tan if he had inspiring advise for business owners.
He thought for a second, and said: “Rent alone will kill you.”
He is fortunate enough to own his own shop, as do most people in the building, but he is still repaying the loan.
He describes the changing pressures faced by small and independent businesses: “Last time, it was easy to rent a shop in the neighbourhood. But now, even the shops there will die. You need to pay three months rent and a downpayment, but you will have no idea how your business will do when you start.”
It is not just the price, but the competition. “Today, every MRT (train station) has an NTUC (chain supermarket), so there is no point buying from the neighbourhood shops.”
Come and wander around this little treasure trove
If you love art and stationery, there is delight in peering at the motley of things on the shelves of Modern Book Store. So much of our work is online and digital that it almost feels like a museum.
It is a place of delightful tools like sparkling pens and construction paper. If there is something you want that he doesn’t carry, just tell him!
Where is it?
You will find this shop at Bras Basah Complex in Singapore on the first floor. The mall is also known as the City of Books because it is filled with independent bookshops, stationery shops, art galleries, music supplies, and other treats for the senses 🙂
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners with their trades around the world, sharing their views on business and life. You can catch all the posts on Facebook and Instagram @ShopkeeperStories. See you there!