SINGAPORE: He remembers the days when students would come crowding to their family’s bookstore at Bras Basah every term, looking to buy the school books on their required list.
And then there were judges, lawyers, and politicians like the late former Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam – a keen photographer – who came a-calling.
“He used to buy photography magazines when I was a small boy and he used to talk to my grandfather,” Mr Noorul Islam recalled. “He was a very good photographer.”
That was decades ago.
These days, the 65-year-old grandfather’s secondhand bookstore at Far East Plaza is the last of its kind along Orchard Road. Gone are the days when there were several competitor bookshops at the shopping centre that made it a bookworm’s haven.
Mr Islam’s Ana Book Store is among a rare and dying breed of secondhand bookstores in Singapore striving to survive in this digital age.
His family is one of the pioneers in this industry – their story began almost 80 years ago when his father opened a bookstore at a shophouse along Bras Basah Road in 1939, called Modern Bookshop. The family lived upstairs.
RUNNING THE BUSINESS AT THE AGE OF 12
Mr Islam started learning the trade from his father when he was just 10 years old. And it was none too soon, as it turned out.
He was 12 when his father died, leaving the business to him and his grandfather. Thrown into the deep end, Mr Islam had to quickly master the trade as his older siblings were living in Dubai and London then.
It helped that business was good. On top of fiction and non-fiction books, they were selling school textbooks which, in those days, were not sold in schools.
Students had to make the trip to Bras Basah to get either new or used books once they got their book list. Said Mr Islam:
During those days, textbooks were quite difficult to get… you might even have to wait a few days.
His own children grew up at the bookstore-cum-home, which was at the centre of the action. His son, Ruhul, recalls how when there was a change of guards at the Istana accompanied by a band, they would watch excitedly from a little window on the second level of the shophouse.
“It’s those small things in life that made us happy back then,” he said.
Redevelopment, however, came a knocking in the early 1990s. The family had to give up their cosy bookshop and their home upstairs, and leave the neighbourhood with its kampung atmosphere.
“On the last day, you felt bad because you were leaving your own kampong people, you know.
“The neighbours were all very good, we talked to everybody, we gossiped. We knew each other very well,” he recalled wistfully.
LOOK, IT’S SINGAPORE’S MR BEAN
The family moved to a HDB flat in Pasir Ris while they relocated their bookshop to Far East Plaza – where it was renamed Ana Book Store after Mr Islam’s mother and his daughter for “good luck”, he said.
Some of his regulars followed him to the new place.
It was during this time that Mr Islam became a mini-celebrity, way before the days of social media. Newspaper clippings proudly displayed in his shop attest to his discovery as the “Mr Bean of Singapore”.
He’d been strolling at a mall along Orchard Road one day, when a family stopped him and asked to take a photograph. Amused but not knowing why, he gamely obliged.
“After taking the picture, they told me, ‘Uncle, you look like Mr Bean’. I said ‘I do? He is a white bean, I’m a brown bean’,” he laughed. “The newspapers and the media came to know about it and they interviewed me.”
Indeed, he bears more than a passing resemblance to British comedian Rowan Atkinson who plays the popular TV character – they both have the same bulging eyes and short-cropped hair, and Mr Islam can even impersonate that same goofy smile if you ask politely.
With his newfound fame, children and adults would drop by his book store to request for a picture.
BOOKS WALL TO WALL
Today, though, his customers are mostly older and include former Members of Parliament, lawyers, judges, academics, and even the occasional ministers from neighbouring countries, he said.
“Since I’m 60 plus, my books are mostly for the older generation. They will buy old books, comics and here you can find any antique, out-of-print and other old books which you may not be able to get in other places,” he said.
Autobiographies, war books, comics and magazines are stacked wall to wall and floor to ceiling. One might be hard-pressed to find what one is looking for, given that the books are largely uncategorised.
On the floor, more boxes of books await those with the time to burrow through. But if you can’t find what you want, it’s best to ask the friendly Mr Islam for help.
Even his son, Ruhul, asked why he didn’t have a proper shelving system like those in libraries or chain bookstores – and dad had a shrewd marketer’s answer.
“He explained that when someone searches for a certain book, he will also come across some other books that they may not have thought of yet. It may just entice them to buy,” said Mr Ruhul.
“So I guess it has been working for him that when people come for certain books, they do end up buying other books as well.”
WATCH: “It’s like a treasure hunt, you find gems" (3:30)
THE FUTURE FOR ANA?
In recent years, the popularity of online bookstores and e-books has led to the collapse of brick-and-mortar chains like Borders and smaller independent outfits. It has also created challenges for Mr Islam who said that thankfully, he has his regular customers to help cover his monthly rental.
But he revealed that business has dropped by about 20 per cent.
Then there is the question of whether the bookstore will continue to be a family tradition. Mr Islam has two sons, a daughter and six grandchildren, but Mr Ruhul is not too keen on taking over the business.
“I’m not working in the same industry. I don’t think I will take over... You can never rule anything out, but definitely not in the foreseeable future,” said the son.
Mr Islam admitted that he could always call it a day and spend time with his grandchildren. But running the shop keeps him active, he said, and he would continue with it even if it becomes unprofitable, so long as he can cover the rent.
I meet people, I talk to people, that keeps me happy and I make them happy too.
“I’m doing a service to the customers. I’m happy to be in this line. I will do this until my two hands and two legs can’t move. Then I will retire.”
One of his regulars is Dr Jan Slikkerveer, a professor from the Netherlands who makes it a point to drop by the bookstore whenever he is in town.
“The only problem is I always go home with too much luggage because of his books,” he said with a smile, adding that he likes the warm, personal service and attention at Ana’s where Mr Islam sometimes offers him and his wife hot beverages while they browse.
“I feel sad when I see more bookshops closing down. I hope for (ANA) to stay for a long time, and Mr Islam to continue his good work, because he has that philosophical interest in sharing his knowledge of books with people,” Dr Slikkerveer added.
Watch this episode, which also features a secondhand vinyl record seller, on The Red Dot, Oct 27 at 9.30 pm, on Mediacorp Channel 5.
The series ‘Do You Remember’ features people who are part of Singapore’s fading heritage, such as Peranakan kebaya maker Heath Yeo, the family behind Haig Road Putu Piring, and a Teochew street opera troupe. Watch the episodes here.