A tale of two indie bookshops

by Kenny Mah

Tables, Shakespeare and Company

There’s this little scene at the start of the film Before Sunset when Ethan Hawke’s character, Jesse, a writer who is promoting his new book at a Parisian bookshop, looks up from replying a journalist’s question and notices for the first time a woman he last saw nine years ago in Vienna.

The woman, played by French actress Julie Delpy, may well be the love of Jesse’s life and it’s an incredibly romantic moment. “Are they still in love?” the viewers wonder. I know I am – in love with the bookshop, that is.

The bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, still stands today. Opened in 1951 by George Whitman at Kilometre Zero in Paris, the point from which all French roads begin, it was initially called Le Mistral.

The American-born Whitman changed it to the present name in April 1964 to celebrate William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday and in honour of a bookseller he admired, Sylvia Beach. Beach had founded the original Shakespeare and Company at 12 rue de l’Odéon in 1919. It closed in 1941.

In its heydays the original Shakespeare and Company was a gathering place for writers – Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald being two of the more famous names – and it was with Beach’s blessings that Whitman borrowed her shop’s name and continued her good work.

Opening time, Shakespeare and Company

Today most visitors to the French capital miss this tiny bookshop as they flock to the touristy Notre Dame opposite. A pity, really; there’s as much history here in the book-laden shelves as there are in Gothic churches.

Constructed in the late 16th century, the building was originally a monastery, La Maison du Mustier. A line written above one doorway – “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” – captures the spirit of the shop to become a welcoming home for writers and readers everywhere.

Here are books to browse through or buy, author readings to attend, and even a bed. Yes, a bed! Whitman invited writers, artists and intellectuals to sleep in the shop, an offer Beat poet Allen Ginsberg took him up on it, as have more than 20,000 young writers in the past six decades.

For book lovers like me, visiting Shakespeare and Company for the first time is not unlike making a pilgrimage. One could spend hours, nay, days here amongst rows and shelves of books. Unlike commercial bookshops where patrons tend to keep to themselves, here it’s not uncommon for strangers to strike up conversations and debate the merits of their favourite authors.

While flipping through a new graphic novel by Chris Ware, I find myself discussing the comic book genre as literature with a lanky Brit named John McNamara. He shares, “I’ve been a customer for more than 11 years now and I’ve actually worked here on-and-off for six of those years.”

McNamara is now an antiquarian books dealer specialising in Russian titles, and often travels around the work looking for other small, independent bookshops with character. He asks me if I know of any in my part of the world and without hesitation I suggest BooksActually.

Interior, BooksActually

Hidden away in the old Singaporean housing estate of Tiong Bahru, BooksActually was founded in 2005 by Kenny Leck, who had worked at larger chain bookstores before. There’s a bit of the Shakespeare and Company vibe here – books filling up the tiny space, friendly and knowledgeable staff – but with lots more natural sunlight.

The sunnier ambiance helps to open up the place, but make no mistake; BooksActually is no lightweight where book selection is concerned. According to Leck, “I personally curate all the titles we sell. It’s important that we only carry what we would buy with our own hard-earned money.”

In addition to running the bookshop, Leck had also set up Math Paper Press, a small press publisher of new and up-and-coming Singaporean authors. “Local writing is something that is close to my heart,” he says.

Leck hopes that by documenting these local stories via Math Paper Press and making the books available in BooksActually, a point of reference is left behind for future generations. Titles include The Invisible Manuscript by Alfian Sa’at, Scattered Vertebrae by Jerrold Yam, and Balik Kampung, the Verena Tay-edited collection of stories about Singaporean neighbourhoods.

There’s certainly plenty to read, and more importantly, interesting and topical content often not available elsewhere. The challenge, though, may be finding enough people who are still reading these days.

Leck acknowledges this and laments the slow death of the reading habit. He observes, “Reading and playing Candy Crush on your smartphone are both leisure activities. But the positive kickback from the latter is instant while the former takes time. In this fast-paced, connected world of ours, the demand for instant positive kickback is even higher than ever. However, with instant gratification, it follows the law of diminishing returns.”

I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing like snuggling up with a good book, especially one that has been hand-picked from hundreds others in an afternoon spent in a charming bookshop. There is a whole process, akin to an adventure that brings back memories from one’s childhood.

Around the world, the big chain bookstores are struggling to survive. Some giants such as Borders have succumbed and closed down. However, there is still room for smaller bookshops that have a specific clientele and carefully curate the books specifically for these customers.

In fact, independent bookshops such as Shakespeare and Company and BooksActually seem to be thriving. Why not help keep the adventure alive by hunting down a neighbourhood bookshop today? Who knows? You might discover some long-lost tome or bump into a former love in between those rows of bookshelves.

I love walking into a bookstore. It’s like all my friends are sitting on shelves, waving their pages at me.
Tahereh Mafi

Kenny Leck, BooksActually

Shakespeare and Company
37 rue de la Bûcherie, Paris, France
Open Mon-Fri 10am-11pm & Sat-Sun 11am-11pm
Tel: +33-1-4325-4093
Web: http://www.shakespeareandcompany.com/‎

9 Yong Siak St, Tiong Bahru, Singapore
Open Tue-Sat 11am-9pm & Sun-Mon 11am-6pm
Tel: +65-6222-9195
Web: http://www.booksactually.com/

An earlier version of this story was first published in The Malay Mail, August 22, 2013.