Light brown wood frames the store front, while large floor-to-ceiling windows allow for natural sunlight to filter in, blanketing the cosy space inside with a subtle glow. A quick glance through the glass pane reveals an eight-seater table surrounded by rows and rows of books, in myriad of colours and sizes, lining the wooden shelves.
Towards the back of the shop, a lady stands by a coffee machine, busy preparing her coffee. There’s a man opposite her, sitting by the bar counter, engrossed with whatever is flashing on his laptop screen. Eager to know what lies inside, I push open the door and a slight tinkle from the small bell above announces my arrival.
Instantly, the lady looks up, her smile bright. “Hi! Welcome to Lit Books!” she greets cheerily, as the man continues to tap away on his keyboard. A quick introduction and I discover that the lady is Elaine Lau, one of the owners of this newly-opened bookstore located in Tropicana Avenue. The other owner, Fong Min Hun, is her husband. At the mention of his name, he glances up sheepishly over his laptop screen and apologises for being preoccupied with some work.
“Let me take you on a small tour,” offers Lau, leading me to the nearest shelf. The tour doesn’t take long but I’m impressed by the knowledge possessed by the 35-year-old on each book that I picked up. “We probably would have read more of what we have in store when we first started the shop in December,” she admits, chuckling. “But we do endeavour to constantly read them as they come in. If we haven’t, at least we still know what they are so we can recommend the right reads to our customers.”
READING IN THE DIGITAL AGE
In an age where digital technology rules much of our lives, I can’t help wondering whether independent bookstores such as this would be able to survive. After all, even massive chain bookstores have seen closure in recent years with American literary giants such as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and even Book World surrendering to the onslaught of digital forces.
Even those in our own backyard haven’t been spared with many having to downsize while others roll down their shutters. “If you know exactly what you want to read and the type of books you like, by all means use the digital medium,” says Fong, who has left his pending work to come and join us for our chat. He adds: “But if you don’t, that’s where our bookstore has an advantage over them.”
Nodding, his wife chips in: “It may come as a surprise but there are still a lot of people who like the physical book even with the rise of e-books. And people do appreciate the personalised approach to selling books. They appreciate coming in and being able to speak to someone and getting recommendations.”
As she speaks, three customers step into the store. Without hesitation, Fong excuses himself to serve them. Watching from afar, I can see how the personal touch will be integral to this bookstore’s success. By the time Fong returns to us to resume our chat, I note that all three customers are toting bags filled with books, their faces beaming from their latest acquisition. One customer even commends Fong for his extensive knowledge on the tomes carried by the store.
“Digital forms could overtake printed words one day with technological advancements,” opines Shirley Ng in a recent email interview. However, Ng, who works in the book distributions industry, also believes that there will always be readers who enjoy holding a physical book and the sound of flipping pages. “It’s just the kind of intimacy that you cannot develop with an electronic device,” she says.
LOVE FOR BOOKS
The affable duo are not strangers to the world of publishing. Both Fong and Lau are former journalists and in Fong’s case, he was also a corporate consultant for six years prior to setting up shop. Today, both husband and wife are proud to be purveyors of the printed word.
“We’ve always loved books,” shares 38-year-old Fong, adding: “And I’ve personally always liked the artistic or literary part of the business. This has been a dream of mine for a very long time now.” His wife concurs saying: “Yes, it has always been something my husband had wanted to do but never got around to doing. As for me, I decided to join him because I came to a crossroad in my life and wanted to do something else. And it has been a great learning and growing experience thus far.”
The love for reading, confide the duo, has always been a part of them for as long as they can remember. “I picked it (reading) up as a child. It was just something I liked to do and possibly a trait I inherited from my mum who’s also a voracious reader,” shares Lau.
She recalls very clearly the numerous library visits that her mum would bring her on. “She’d always take me to the KK (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah) library and I’d pick up whatever books I like. That’s where I fell in love with mysteries and progressed from the usual Enid Blyton to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and then to Agatha Christie’s series,” recounts Lau.
As for Fong, he admits that reading was something of a given because he comes from a family of readers. “As a young kid, I was already exposed to the classics such as Black Beauty and The Prince And The Pauper,” he shares, continuing: “My first thick book was Enid Blyton’s The Secret Mountain series when I was about five or six. But I didn’t actually start reading systemically until my university days when I was doing my degree in liberal arts in Canada.”
The duo recall that their reading habit was left on the back burner for a while when they were pursuing their careers in journalism. “Because I was a financial correspondence, much of my fictional reading took a backseat. But reading, just like exercise, became a habit again once I got out of the industry,” he enthuses as his wife nods fervently.
NOT A DYING HABIT
The charm of an independent book store that’s opened by readers for readers is undeniably a unique appeal that perhaps mass bookstores and online bookstores will never have.
However, the couple admit that their biggest challenge is their limited inventory. “When we first opened, we thought we’d be a bookstore catering only to the serious readers,” confides Fong.
Continuing, he adds: “I’ve heard countless times that Malaysians don’t read or Malaysians don’t buy books. Now, I don’t want to buck traditional wisdom but I believe that Malaysians do read and buy books, and people who read know what they want.”
Chips in Lau: “We soon realised, within a week or two of opening, that it’s the people around the neighbourhood who were thrilled to have us and they came with certain needs or were looking for specific titles — titles that we might not have carried previously. So we quickly changed that.”
Looking ahead, in addition to selling books, the husband-and-wife team hopes to hold literary events such as book launches and book readings for the people in Petaling Jaya (PJ). “Most cultural happenings in the Klang Valley are centred in KL and for good reasons. But I believe PJ isn’t a cultural wasteland and it’ll be great to provide a platform for it,” says Fong.
Noting the hours that have passed, I reluctantly decide to take my leave. As I thank the couple for sparing me their precious time, Fong shares his favourite quote from Federick Nietzsche: ‘One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star’. “It makes me feel young and rebellious,” he admits cheekily.
Eyes sparkling, he concludes: “And it’s something that I hold dear because without chaos in me, I wouldn’t have started this bookstore.” And many readers out there will agree, contentment, by virtue, is not what a reader makes.
Where: P-01-11 Tropicana Avenue, 12, Persiaran Tropicana, Tropicana Golf & Country Resort, Petaling Jaya