Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Role of a Specialised Book Store

Select Books has been around since 1976. That's a long time for an independent book store with a very niche focus. Ms Lena Lim, founder and former managing director, did a great job building it up and keeping it going, despite some hard times during past economic recessions. As we plunge into the depths of another recession, we've been doing some soul-searching about what our business proposition is.

In the old days - actually not very ago by historical standards but long by today's standards! - Select was essentially a broker; a middle-man for folks who needed hard-to-find books on Southeast Asia. Select sourced for these books and brought them together under one roof. Researchers, academics, librarians, politicians, civil servants, and anyone else who wanted to get hold of books on Southeast Asia, came to Select because it was the easiest way and, often, the only viable way, depending on the particular fields they were interested in. American, Danish and Japanese academics and librarians came on special buying trips to Singapore, and to Select specifically. Select had the expertise and the wherewithal to find these great books and to make it easy to get them into the hands of people who needed them. We were not really a merchandiser; we were a service-provider.

Today, the Internet is the great middle-man-eliminator. Not just in the book trade, but in all economic arenas. With the Internet, it's much easier to locate an obscure book publisher in Indonesia with that small-print-run book about Indonesia forestry data; it's much easier to buy from American and UK book sellers directly; and it's much easier to share these information with colleagues and friends. Who needs Select Books anymore?

While lamenting about this phenomenon to a well-known writer and researcher recently, I was pleasantly surprised when he sighed and pointed out that he had found that he still need to come to Select Books for some research requirements, albeit not as much as before. Why? Because language is still a problem - an Indonesian book publisher with an English-language book might not have an English website. Because payment is still a problem - some book sellers do not accept credit cards because of credit card fraud concerns; some book sellers you don't trust with a credit card; and bank drafts and postal orders are a pain. Because Select is still an excellent source of information about Asian and Southeast Asian books. And finally, because nothing beats the pleasure of browsing at a bookshelf and discovering an obscure book.

Recently, we've also had the pleasure of having teachers from various different schools visit us (separately). They had heard about Select Books and came to check us out. All were pleasantly surprised at the range of books that we carried - many of which they had not seen elsewhere, not because the books are rare in any sense, but because in our cosy book store, we've been able to bring all the related titles together in a way that was easy for them to find.

So, there is still a role for an Asian Book Specialist.

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