Grassroots Book Room is a place to fall in love with books: floor to ceiling stacks of books with wooden ladders that invite you to climb and explore the tantalizing unknowns. Walk in a little further, and you will see a corner cafe where readers are absorbed in the spell of their book and tea.
I met with one of the 3 owners, Lim Jen Erh, who gave a brief history of the business, and explained how they strive to keep the bookshop meaningful in an era of online shopping.
They bought the bookshop to keep it alive
Lim Jen Erh and his friends had been loyal customers of Grassroots Book Room when they learned that the owner was closing down the 20-year-old business.
“I was going to his bookstore quite frequently, and thought: what a pity if it closes down. To me, it was one of the few quality independent Chinese bookstores. So I talked to my friends, and we came together and bought the business over.”
He quit his job as the arts editor of a Chinese newspaper to pursue this venture in 2014. “Nowadays, with the Internet age and e-books, not as many people go to bookshops. But, we had some new ideas and thought: why not give it a try?”
1. Create a space not only to buy books, but to read books
How do you keep a bookstore alive when people are shopping online? The 3 owners decided to create a place that celebrates the wonder of discovering books, rather than the cut-and-dry transactions that define e-commerce.
“The basic idea is to create a space where people come not only to buy books. Of course, books are the main business—selling books—but we thought that should not be the main reason why people come here. That’s why the café is one of the considerations: where people can come and buy a book—or bring their own book—and sit down and have coffee and read their book quietly.
“People started to appreciate that this is a different space. You come here to spend time freely to read a book or have a conversation with your friend. That’s what we wanted to create: something different from other retail spaces.”
2. Evoke a sense of wonder through the spatial design
At one glance, the bookstore looks beautiful. The books and artifacts are thoughtfully arranged along with porcelain bowls, watercolour drawings, and totebags.
“When you look at the porcelain, we have books about eating, drinking, and cooking. Sometimes, we place a typewriter together with the books. It helps people to relate the books to a physical world.
“We also have a little exhibition about urban sketching placed together with books about drawing, travelling, and sketching, so the art and books complement each other.”
3. Give your customers something new to discover
“I try to change the look of the bookstore every few months so that the regulars can discover something new each time they come, which is important.”
4. Avoid mainstream. Define a unique selection of books.
“Each bookstore has its own specialty – the selection is quite different from each other. This makes everything quite interesting, unlike the book chains where you go to the branches, and they each sell almost the same books.”
“We select our books based on what our readers and customers want. We try not to sell the most popular books. There are lots of Popular bookstores, so people can get mainstream books easily.
“We look for books that are well-written in each genre and have some cultural value. We have quite a number of books about eating and cooking. These are not ordinary recipe books. Instead, they touch on aspects of the history or culture of eating and cooking. We look for books that carry this kind of added value.”
5. Don’t stress out customers by only carrying heavy titles
“The original old bookstore specialized in philosophy, culture, theory, and classical Chinese literature. We brought over most of the books, and we still keep that section.
“However, we expanded the scope of our books. We added children storybooks, lifestyle books about eating, cooking, travelling— topics that do not make people feel stressed when they open the books (unlike classical philosophy!).”
6. Reach out to ordinary people, not just elite readers
“The old bookstore depended on university students studying Chinese language, but nowadays there are fewer people studying Chinese language and philosophy.
“Even in the university, they don’t buy books as much. They get online resources. So, not only have our reading habits changed, but our buying habits have changed as well.
“We are trying to reach out to the ordinary reader – not just university students – who come into the bookstore. They are looking for something that can improve their life. If you are into cooking, there are certain things that can help you understand its cultural value. That’s the difference we are trying to do.”
7. Let your customers take photos if they’d like!
“We have a mix of regulars and accidentals who bump into the bookstore, and young people come to know about this on social media. They come here to take photos, and we think that’s a good thing: when people notice a bookstore! So we don’t mind people coming to take photos.”
8. Invite people to gather at your space
“The most important thing is to get people to come into this space. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese community were used to going to the bookstores along Bras Basah Road, along North Bridge Road and South Bridge Road. People would go there after school or during the weekends and meet friends there before going to a movie or to someone’s house.
“This habit changed, and now people seldom gather at bookshops. So, the first thing we are trying to do is to get people to come here.
“Slowly, to form a habit: when you are free, please consider going to a bookstore. That’s the kind of thing we are trying to restore: that habit. This is probably the most important thing nowadays.”
9. Rare comfort among the books
“When people come into a space where there are a lot of books, the curiosity will show on people’s faces.
“Nowadays, the only place where you can go to be surrounded by books is probably the library. Not many homes have a study room nowadays. A lot of homes used to have study rooms with bookshelves, but not anymore. That’s the thing that we wanted to create: a different atmosphere. People to be comfortable among books.”
10. Magic is finding what you were not seeking
“The nature of a physical bookstore is quite different when you buy online. Normally, when you go online, you have a specific idea of what you want to look for. Whereas if you go to a bookstore, if you let yourself free and look around, there will be a lot of discovery.
“When you decide to buy a book, it is probably not the book that you wanted to buy initially, or even the book that you knew about before. I think it is that kind of discovery that makes a physical bookstore different from online shopping.”
11. Create social experiences around the bookstore
“We are still operating at a loss. Our lease will expire [in August  and we will renew it for two to three years. Hopefully, we can bring the business into balance without pumping in more money. Selling books is still the main thing that we try very hard to do. But we are exploring different things like workshops, talks, and events at the café.
“We will be doing publications more actively in the following years. So we will do different things for the next two or three years.”
12. Events are free, but it might inspire people to buy books
“We marked a small area in the bookshop where we can move the bookshelves for a book launch or book talk, or at night we have mini concerts.
“Events help to bring in revenue. We have some ticketed events, but they are mostly free. People who come in will probably buy books or get a coffee, and that helps with revenue.
“We know that this is a very hard business to run! It’s really hard. But we really appreciate people’s help. Some of our friends even come in to sweep the floor, and wash the dishes.”
13. Sell books in bulk. Manage cashflow by staying small.
“To increase your sales, give talks, and sell in bulk to clubs for their own private libraries. Try not to keep the store too big, so you can run on a small budget. This will help you survive in the moment. Rent is a killer, so try not to expand too big too fast.”
14. Show the covers of the books, not just the spines
“We try to display books in a way where the covers are visible. Otherwise, you have to look at the spine of the books. Sometimes, we rotate books around the store so people have a chance to look at different books.”
15. Step into the magic
If you are in Singapore, here’s the door to enter: 25 Bukit Pasoh Rd, Singapore 089839
Beyond the book room, the street is lined with a variety of restaurants, bars, and cafes.
“We are not on a very busy street, so half the people who come here, come here on purpose. They come to this bookstore to look for books, or they have friends and come together and have a coffee. It becomes a purpose for them.”
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, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn @ShopkeeperStories. Enjoy!