After 55 years of buying and selling books, this secondhand bookstore owner is calling it quits
SINGAPORE: It's a weekday afternoon during the March school holidays, and there's a steady stream of customers at Mr Pohl Chan's secondhand bookstore at Beauty World Centre.
There are couples, parents with children and older men and women. Most of them don't leave empty-handed. After all, there is something for everyone – from children to adults, from mystery novels to comic books.
Behind the counter, as he quotes the price of the books, Mr Chan says:
"You know right? I'm closing down soon."
After 55 years of buying and selling books – including 40 years in this sleepy neighbourhood mall – Mr Chan will pull the shutters down for good in five months' time.
The 73-year-old said he was waiting for a situation that would give him "no choice" but to shut down, like an illness or bankruptcy.
But rent is as good a reason as any other, he said. The monthly rental of S$1,400 for his 200 sq ft shop rose to S$1,800 in April.
It was meant to increase to S$2,000 but his landlord agreed to lower it after a negotiation.
Mr Chan intends to take the next few months to clear his stock of 20,000 books, before calling it quits in September.
TROUBLE LETTING GO
It is a decision Mr Chan seems to have made with difficulty.
"I'm very reluctant to retire because I got many good customers who support me and the books are like my family, my friends," he said.
Mr Chan said he is grateful he got into the industry at a young age of 12. Having only had primary school education, he thought he would have to find a blue-collar job or do manual labour to get by.
"Actually my expectation (was that) when I'm old I would become a beggar or odd-job labourer because I'm not educated," he said.
"I'm very lucky, very blessed. Here got air-con, not working in hot sun."
The eldest of 12 children, he started working early in his life to help out with his family's finances. They were so poor that his parents had to give away three children because they could not afford to raise them, Mr Chan said.
It was all a matter of chance that he found a job as an errand boy for a bookshop owner in Sembawang, he said.
He ran errands like buying coffee for his boss and helping to take care of the shop, Mr Chan said. His boss also taught him to repair books, which were often poorly bound.
The S$40 he earned a month went towards supporting his family.
In the early days, nearly all the customers at the Sembawang bookshop were Europeans, Mr Chan said. New books, even the thickest ones, cost just over a dollar. (A plate of mee goreng was 20 cents then, he added.)
Now, new books typically cost at least S$14, and some bigger or thicker books more than S$20, he said.
About five years after he started working at the bookshop, Mr Chan struck out on his own. He had some help from his boss, who gave him some books to start with.
He rented a space opposite Beauty World until his shop got relocated to the mall by the Government in 1983. He moved into a 250 sq ft unit in the mall's basement.
"I felt very proud to have a shop, after starting from scratch," he said.
Business was good then, and he saved up enough to buy a unit on the second floor double the size.
But as smartphones and social media rose in popularity and fewer people read for pleasure, business took a hit. Things got so bad in the early 2000s that Mr Chan thought he would have to fold.
But he decided to soldier on. He sold off his unit and rented a smaller shop, a 200 sq ft space on the third floor of the mall, which he still manages today.
Through all his ups and downs, his customers continue going back to him, Mr Chan said. Some of his regular customers began going to his shop when they were in primary school and are now grandparents bringing their grandchildren to his shop, he said.
STORE WILL BE MISSED
One customer who was sad to know the secondhand bookstore will close is Ms Sasha Logan, who has been visiting the store every week for about three years.
It is where she spends her time while her 12-year-old daughter attends one of the many tuition centres in the mall.
She can get secondhand books here at lower prices than they are sold elsewhere. "It is my playground," she said.
Her daughter, who gets about four comic books each time they visit, is as sad as her to see Mr Chan's store go, Ms Sasha said.
"It is sad because this kind of bookstores is slowly disappearing. And for me, I love the (physical) book," she said.
Others, like Ms Jean Ong, were there for nostalgia when CNA visited last month. Ms Ong said she made a trip to the bookstore after finding out about its impending closure from a Facebook post in late February.
A civil servant in her 40s, Ms Ong said she used to visit the store once a week when she attended a primary school in the area.
After seeing the Facebook post, she took her two daughters aged eight and 10 to visit Mr Chan's store for the first time.
"We came to show some support. It's quite sad. After all it has been here for (so many) years," she said.
She and her children bought 18 books on their visit, spending a total of S$64.
Many former customers like Ms Ong have been returning to the shop recently, possibly after the Facebook post went viral, Mr Chan said.
Mr Chan said it's "heart pain" for him to think of closing down, and that he finds most joy when he is working.
He is also sentimental about leaving a job that allowed him to raise three children and give them a good education. Aged 35, 40 and 45, they are all university graduates, he said with pride. His HDB flat is also fully paid for.
He only takes one break a year, when the shop is closed for two weeks during Chinese New Year, and even then finds the break "boring".
As he thinks about life after retirement, Mr Chan's resolve to shut down wavers.
"If (the S$2,000 rent is) manageable, I'll see how," he said.