Tucked along a row of shops offering carpets, Turkish food, hostels, and a museum of toys, you will find a chalkboard outside a shop that flaunts none of its wares on the sidewalk. To discover what it holds, the curious need to take a step inside.
This is Wardah Books. For 16 years, Ibrahim Tahir has steered this store from an idea to a warehouse to sharing a spot with a carpet shop and now to a dedicated venue packed with books that he personally selects for the Muslim community.
All the books are in English, touching not only on religious philosophy, but also on poetry, politics, architecture, and stories that relate to the experience of being Muslim.
Ibrahim leads us through the practical steps of his business journey, and he explains how a brick-and-mortar bookstore allows self-discovery, personal connection, and a way to chance upon the “unknown unknown” in a way that cyberspace has yet to displace.
What inspired you to start selling books?
I have always enjoyed reading, but could not find a lot of books that I wanted to read in Singapore. Finally, I decided to import these books in bulk from publishers, store them in a warehouse, and supply them to local bookshops.
This was the original idea: I would become a book distributor!
In theory, this was a good idea. However, I discovered that my books weren’t selling in the bookshops. This didn’t make sense to me because they were good books!
This helped me pin-point that the lack of this genre of books was not due to poor supply, but due to a downstream issue at the bookshops.
These Malay bookshops only had a small section in the corner for English language books. When people walk in, they aren’t expecting to get English books. There was a mismatch in expectations.
How did you start your first brick-and-mortar shop?
At the time, I was working as an editor for a publishing house and was too busy to wrestle seriously with the idea of selling books. One day, however, I was chatting with the owner of an antique store at 709 North Bridge Road who told me that the shop next door was giving up their lease.
He asked: “Why not take over their lease and sell your books?”
The very next weekend, we found ourselves signing a contract— and we had a bookstore! Completely unplanned! We knew it had to happen, but we were not actively seeking it out.
In the beginning, we only had a narrow selection of books from three publishers, but people were still buying them. Soon, I could see that my theory was correct: the shortage of these particular books was a downstream issue at the bookshops, not a supply issue.
Why did you move out of your first shop?
We were paying our rent diligently, but the landlord saw it fit to kick us out with only two weeks’ notice. Thankfully, we found a carpet shop on Bussorah Street where the owner no longer wanted to have a carpet gallery on the second floor, so he let us lease the space temporarily.
This time, our customers had to make their way through a carpet store, and climb up the stairs to enter our bookshop!
But we noticed that business was not affected. This is when we realized that we were a destination site. People were coming to us.
At the end of the year, the carpet shop owner decided to return to Orchard Road, so we took over his entire lease. We were at the right place at the right time!
How do you explain the failure of bookshops – both big and small?
There is an epidemic of pessimism in the book industry, and it is an epidemic I refuse to succumb to. What keeps me going are the books themselves.
Bookstores fail when they lose confidence in the book as a medium.
Due to this lack of confidence, they start selling caps and mugs and toys which dilute the business terribly. Heavy discounting is another sign of this poor business confidence. Why would you discount a book like Harry Potter on the first day of its release?
Whether the bookstore is big or small, our fundamental business is about believing in books. For example, the book buyers at Kinokuniya seem to know what they are doing. The selection is wonderful. Remember that they, too, are local and part of the community. They have their heart in the right place, and have their hearts close to the readers.
A day in a life of a bookseller – what does it look like for you?
My mornings are usually spent replying to emails, taking photographs of books for our website and social media, and packing books. Most of my time is spent sourcing for new titles, reading, reviewing books, reading reviews of books, pouring over catalogs, and contacting publishers and getting them to contact me when they have new books.
In the afternoons, I spend more time on the frontend interacting with customers.
At the end of the day, I spend time with my family at home, and then read for an hour before sleeping. I try to speed read all the books in my store so I have an idea of what I have!
How does it feel to peddle books for a living?
There is a book called The Reluctant Capitalist on the history of the book trade. The reluctant capitalist is the bookseller who treasures the books as something more than just a commodity, and yet they need to sell the books in order to make a living and keep the bookstore alive.
We are first and foremost lovers of books, and want to think of ourselves as being beyond profit and loss.
However, we have to keep an eye on sales because we have a responsibility to our staff and our continued existence.
We don’t want to imagine a situation where the community doesn’t have a bookstore like Wardah.
Despite the pressure, I am happy to be involved in the book trade. There are some days when we don’t sell as many books, and some days when we sell a lot of books. In both cases, I’m equally happy because I’m doing what I love.
Have you had any big scares while running the business?
Our Achilles heel is our supply chain.
Our scariest moment is when we lost a huge shipment of books worth USD $5,000. We simply lost the shipment from the USA, and it was last seen in the Philippines.
We had no insurance—because we are a small business and did not want to add to our costs— so it was a complete write-off. The difficult part was when I still had to pay the publishers even though we never got the books.
Why should anyone bother going to a bookshop when they can buy online?
The experience is totally different. The Internet is a distracting medium!
The bookstore slows you down. Just being in the presence of a bookstore slows you down.
It puts you in a different mindset.
When you walk in, you are no longer thinking about your day-to-day. You can be there for your personal interests. This is something that you need as a person. You need that breather. You need to be able to aspire again: to let yourself aspire to new knowledge and aspire to different things.
The bookstore allows you this aspiration. In some ways, all shops do this, like Sephora, where you can imagine how a lipstick will look on you. But a bookstore sparks this feeling even more, because it’s like a wonderland across space and time.
If you go online, you will probably buy the book that you are interested in. But, when you come here, you will probably get other books as well. The physical store itself is value-adding.
It reminds me of this quote: “It’s not the book you seek, but the book next to it, that changes your world.”
There is this idea of the “angel of the book stacks” where you discover books that you didn’t know you needed – this is the “unknown unknown”.
Amazon uses plenty of algorithms to predict what book you might like based on your buying patterns, but it’s still a “known unknown”.
You will only chance upon the complete unknown unknown in a physical bookstore, especially when you discover a book that is in the wrong section—which happens more often than I care to admit [laughs].
It sounds like the bookshop pulls us away from the predictability of our everyday context, and plunges us into an atmosphere of quietude, ideas, and possibility.
We are always rushing, but in my bookstore, we slow down, and we are open to discovery.
When we are online, we tend to be predatory, hunting for the best price. In a bookshop, you are in discovery mode.
There was an old man who used to take the train every month from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, and he would spend the entire day reading on the couch in our bookshop. At the end of the day, he would take the long train ride back.
Bookstores are places of healing.
How do you choose your books?
Our bookshop is run by Malay Muslims, and we curate a selection of quality books of interest to Malay Muslims. So, we are a community space and a gathering place for lovers of books.
I have seen friendships and romances begin over here. At least 5 couples have met in this bookstore and gotten married, and they even took their wedding photoshoot here!
It’s a space that literally allows you to go up to someone and say: that’s a fantastic book.
It’s okay to do that in an independent bookstore.
How do you design your shop in a way that “slows people down”?
The books alone do that. And the couch— it’s just as important as the books!
They say a bookshop is only as good as the bookseller. What do you think?
You judge a book by its cover, and you judge a bookstore by its catalog— by the kinds of books they have. It serves as a specialist place that people visit to pursue their niche interests, and they assume the booksellers have an understanding of the subject.
This makes a difference: your knowledge of the subject, and people’s expectations of your knowledge of the subject.
The number of books circulating out there is bewildering. People have come to appreciate our taste in books—our curation—and that’s why they come to us.
When I travelled around the United Kingdom, I came across a variety of specialist bookstores, such as an occult bookstore (where you can expect to find the best occult books), or a leftist bookstore (that stocks up on Martin Luther King and Marxist books). These places galvanise communities and conversations.
What sorts of questions do your customers ask?
[Laughs] People have walked through the doors with a question like this: “I’m looking for a book… and… it’s black. Do you have the book?”
Not one to back away from a challenge, I try to get more information: “Can you tell me what it is about?”
And they will tell me everything about the book—everything, except the title! It feels like we are playing ‘book charades’! Slowly but surely, we work out all the details from the characters, plot, thickness of the book, genre, era – until we finally arrive at the title.
The bookshop is a space where people have forged friendships. Are booksellers like matchmakers?
I am a matchmaker of books. It’s a joy to put a book in unsuspecting hands!
We literally hand-sell our books. I’ll put the book in your hands and tell you—Chapter 3 is great, you can skip Chapter 2 because it’s iffy, and if you want to talk about the ideas in Chapter 8, come by so we can discuss it!
Sometimes, my customers are the only ones who read avidly in their social circle, so they enjoy coming here to talk about it with me. They just want to talk about it with another person.
Why is the bookshop important to society?
Bookstores are barometers of the intellectual life of a society. The livelier the bookstore scene is—or the library—the livelier you can assume is the intellectual life of the people.
Reading as a medium is a very important civilizational activity. Reading an article online is miles apart from what the mind does when you read a text. If a sizeable portion of the population does not read, I don’t know what will remain of civilization.
Curious to see this diverse collection of books that speak to the Muslim community?
If you’re in Singapore, you can pop into their beautiful space along Bussorah Street!
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners with their trades around the world, sharing their insights and stories. Follow along on this journey on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ShopkeeperStories. See you there!