Singapore turns a new leaf

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 February, 1999, 12:00am

It is almost midnight on a steamy Singapore Saturday evening. Gaggles of young things clad in clubland chic stand about chattering animatedly. Others sink into plush sofas, absorbed in glossy magazine style-bibles like The Face. Nearby, more of their number sip double espressos. It could be a scene from any number of the funky coffee houses, bars or bistros amid the night-time bustle of Orchard Road. The only incongruities are the rows of rainbow-hued spines of books. For we are, in fact, in a bookstore.

US chain Borders has beaten arch-rival Barnes and Noble (B&N) to give Asia its first US-style book superstore. It sprawls over 2,850 square metres in Wheelock Place on Orchard Road and, since its opening a year ago, is on the way to accomplishing its mission: to make reading hip. On Friday and Saturday nights, when the store stays open until midnight, it has a buzz not normally associated with a quiet bookworm's lair.

Says company representative Teo Li-li: 'What we are striving to bring to Singapore is a very different book environment. Previously, the bookstores in Singapore were usually small, did not allow browsing and the books tended to be covered in plastic. There was no comfortable environment for people to browse.

'Now, what Borders does is bring a totally new concept. We provide benches and sofas so people can sit down and relax and choose the books they want to read. Because we encourage browsing, what we do indirectly is to encourage people to be more adventurous when it comes to reading. When you browse, you tend not just to judge a book by its cover, but you flick through, maybe read a few chapters and then you might decide to buy that book.' Letters to newspapers and calls to talkback radio have been awash with complaints about selfish Singaporeans hogging the couches all day, reading entire books then putting them back dirty and dog-eared without spending a cent. Ms Teo does not believe the company's policy is being unduly taken advantage of. 'It's a very progressive policy. I think our customers appreciate being able to have a good look through books before they spend their money.' During several hours of observing on a Saturday, no-one seemed to be monopolising the couches and there were usually seats to spare. But there were piles of books strewn about the floor, and some customers might balk at handing over more than HK$100 for a book in a less than pristine condition.

Borders and B&N are known in retailing parlance as 'category killers'; vast conglomerates that buy in vast quantities and undercut their competitors on prices, which, critics say, leaves 'ma and pa' bookstores without a chance. In the US, the literati bemoan the power of these superstores which can make or break a book simply by where and how they display it.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture at New York University, told Business Week recently that this allows these stores 'to wield immense power over the long-term health of our culture'.

In the US, the American Booksellers Association has filed a lawsuit against Borders and B&N, alleging that they coerce publishers into giving them secret and illegal deals. Both chains deny the claims. Singapore Book Publishers Association representative Pan Wu-cheng says he doesn't believe the opening of Borders in Singapore has been bad for the industry. 'Their policies are very progressive, and that has caused the other big chains here like MPH and The Times to lift their games. Things like letting people browse and having a cafe . . . others are now following Borders' lead.' He is not worried about Borders developing too much power and influence over the industry. 'Singapore is fortunate because there are already two other big chains, so there is no monopoly. If one chain doesn't take a book, perhaps the other one will. So I don't see a sinister side to Borders' success here.' A quick check of prices of some new hardback bestsellers did not show huge discounting in Borders Singapore: Tom Wolfe's A Man In Full was selling at S$49 (about HK$245) and Richard Harris' Archangel was priced at S$39, similar to those in Borders' biggest rival, MPH.

And despite being an American chain, Borders Singapore is not fighting one of the city state's more famous aspects: its censorship rules. All its staff have been on censorship courses and stick with what is 'acceptable', according to Ms Teo, so nudity, for a start, is out. Singapore's Films and Publications Department issues a list of prohibited publications to all major bookstores. Most of those on the list seem to be tawdry soft porn rather than political polemics, though religious works also feature. The 72 titles which make the current list still include the famous magazines Playboy and Playgirl.

On the literary front, only Henry Miller's Sexus gets a mention, while all publications by the International Bible Students' Association and by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the Jehovah's Witnesses) are no-nos. Ironically, Ms Teo says religious books have been selling better than expected. 'That is supposed to be a so-called cold area in Singapore, but we have been selling a lot.' A representative of The Times chain was unwilling to comment on how Borders' opening had affected the market, saying the topic was 'too sensitive'. MPH's senior manager Ong Khiaw-hui said business was down, but it was hard to gauge what impact Borders had made. 'It wasn't long after it opened that the economic downturn began to bite, so it's a combination of both factors,' he said. Mr Ong said MPH's flagship store on Stamford Road had been operating for 90 years and stocked more than 100,000 titles compared with 140,000 at Borders. 'So really, we are not that much smaller than Borders.' He denied that the opening of Borders had forced other stores to make changes in the way they displayed books and in encouraging people to read and browse while in the store. 'Actually, we had been moving in that direction anyway,' Mr Ong said.

But others are more concerned. Shigeki Onishi, director of Maruzen Asia, a mid-sized store with about 40,000 English and Japanese titles in the swanky Takashimaya shopping centre in Orchard Road, says the combination of Borders opening and the economic downturn has hit the store and recently forced the closure of a second, smaller shop. 'I believe after Borders opened, all the other stores were affected,' he said. 'It's been difficult for everybody. Singapore people just don't seem that interested in books right now. 'I would say business is no worse now than a year ago - but it's no better either. We have made some changes to try to stay competitive, including renovating part of the store and putting a lot of effort into our merchandising.' At the other end of the market is the Parklane Book Corner in Selegie Road. 'We're tiny,' says owner Ian Urquart. 'We probably stock about 6,000 titles. It's just me and one assistant here. A lot of my business is renting books, although we sell them as well.' He said renting was popular in Singapore, with the average bestseller costing S$3-S$4 for a month. 'I would say the rental market for books is pretty good - maybe we even benefit from the economic downturn as fewer people want to buy books. The opening of Borders probably had some effect, it's hard to say.' Borders began in 1971 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is still the chain's headquarters. It was originally a second-hand bookstore opened by two brothers, Tom and Louis Border. Ms Teo says the Singapore store was the chain's first foray outside the US, based on availability of a central site, literacy levels and disposable income in the community. It has just opened a store in London and will soon open in Melbourne. She said the store had sold more than 600,000 books in its first year of operation.

Unusually for Singapore, Borders will take back books returned within two weeks with a receipt and change it 'item for item' - if you paid cash, you receive cash, if you paid by voucher, you get a voucher back. She says the prices are 'very competitive' but denies the store drastically undercuts smaller stores. 'We have a below S$10 and below S$5 range, but the expensive ones are doing surprisingly well. I guess the average price would be S$13 for a small paperback to over S$30 for, say, the new Tom Clancy hardback. We also slap a 20 per cent discount on any books on The New York Times bestseller list.' She believes the store has helped reawaken an interest in books among younger Singaporeans. 'If you look at our book and music sellers you will realise they are very hip young people who also happen to like reading. And a lot of our customers are the same - stylish people who enjoy books.

'So I think Borders has become one of the hippest places to hang out in Singapore and we especially see a lot of response over the weekends.' The arrival of bookshop Borders, its mission to make reading hip, is livening up the Lion City market, writes Jason Gagliardi