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Breathing new life into the 'city of books': Tenants seek to rejuvenate Bras Basah Complex even as some bookshops falter

SINGAPORE — Madam Connie Soon is part of a growing effort among shopkeepers to rejuvenate and reinvent Bras Basah Complex, once known as a "city of books" and a haven for bookworms.
Breathing new life into the 'city of books': Tenants seek to rejuvenate Bras Basah Complex even as some bookshops falter
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  • Shopkeepers at Bras Basah Complex are looking at ways to rejuvenate the mall and attract new shoppers
  • The complex, built in 1980, was a haven for bookworms as it was home to many bookstores
  • However, changing shopping habits have caused some bookshops to close, with Knowledge Book Centre set to fold in the coming month
  • The Bras Basah Complex Merchants' Association chairperson is organising events to attract more people to visit
  • Tenants are also doing their part to add fresh appeal to the complex

SINGAPORE — Madam Connie Soon is part of a growing effort among shopkeepers to rejuvenate and reinvent Bras Basah Complex, built in 1980 and once known as a "city of books" and a haven for bookworms.

As at least one bookstore in the complex prepares to close, Mdm Soon, 70, has just completed a calligraphy exhibition at her fourth floor unit that was so successful, she's been asked to hold an exhibition every two months.

"The event ended yesterday (June 12) and there were so many people so the (Bras Basah Complex Merchants') Association told me to organise every two months. It's a bit of work, and I'm not sure if I will, but I'm glad the turnout has been great," she told TODAY on Monday.

She also runs a thriving business on the second floor, selling brushes, inks and paper for Chinese calligraphy.

“I hope people see the beautiful artworks and want to take up Chinese calligraphy as a hobby, and that the artists will be encouraged by having their works displayed and appreciated,” Mdm Soon said in Mandarin.

She is also looking forward to the return of international tourists, who thronged her store before Covid-19.

To help the store stay afloat, her son has helped list the store’s items on the company’s website so her customers can buy online.

Indeed, seven of the nine tenants at Bras Basah Complex interviewed by TODAY have taken similar steps to go online over the last two years to accommodate to their customers' changing purchasing preferences. 

They are holding onto their physical stores, however, because most have regular customers who still visit to buy things. Many also own their stores and do not need to pay rent.

ORGANISING EVENTS TO ATTRACT SHOPPERS

The merchant association's chairperson, Ms Joyce Ong, who runs a fengshui store Gems Shine, said that she and her committee have been organising more events this year to attract more shoppers to the mall.

“We had a concert on June 5 and there were so many people that some were looking down from the second and third floor to watch… We are very much alive, and there’s so much to see here so I hope more people visit the complex,” she told TODAY in Mandarin.

“Just because it’s an older shopping mall, doesn’t mean it’s dead. There is so much to offer here, we just hope more people are willing to come and explore.” 

Ms Ong also runs the association’s Facebook page, where she publicises the mall’s happenings and tenant’s activities. And out of her own pocket, she sometimes pays to advertise these posts so that more people would come over to the mall.

“My second job is doing marketing for the mall,” she quipped.

Mr Mohamad Ismail, owner of Knowledge Book Centre, posing for a photo on June 7, 2022.

BOOK BUYERS 'TEND TO SHOP ONLINE'

In the midst of efforts to rejuvenate the complex, its status as a bookshop hub, located next to the National Library, is taking a hit as in-store sales drop off. 

Knowledge Book Centre is set to close down in the coming months as the store’s landlord searches for a new tenant.

With dwindling footfall to the bookstore making it difficult to pay for the shop’s rent, 69-year-old co-owner Mohamed Ismail said that he plans to shut the store that has been operating at the complex since 1981.

His store, located on the third floor of the complex, sells second-hand books and academic materials such as textbooks.

“Back in the 90s, the store would be packed and there would be hundreds of customers. Now, we’re lucky if we have more than 10 (a day),” said Mr Ismail, adding that more people were coming now that news of the closure has spread.

He said his rent is S$7,500 a month, which is S$1,000 less than what he used to pay in 2020 before the circuit breaker. 

According to some tenants in the complex, Mr Ismail’s rental is one of the highest due to its location in front of the escalator and its large 1,200 sq ft size.

Mr Ismail said: “Things have changed, people can go online and buy (books) or they don’t read as much.”

He added that as he mostly sells second-hand books, it is hard to sell online due to the book’s quality. “At my age, it’s also quite difficult to sell (online).” 

Mr Abdul Nasser, 58, owner of Basheer Graphic Books, opened his store in 1991. While he still has his regulars, overall customer numbers are well down.

His store, which specialises in selling design and architecture books and magazines, is located on the fourth floor in front of the complex’s only escalator.

“Maybe it’s just technology, or it might be just me, but back in the late '90s when the mall used to be packed with people, the escalators had queues and they would break down often because there were so many people using them.

“I don’t think the escalator has broken down in the past three years,” Mr Nasser said.

He added that shoppers' habits have changed now that most customers buy things online and go to bookstores only as a “last resort” if they are unable to get a book they want online.

“We occasionally get queries on our Instagram page from people looking for a particular book that sold out online, hoping that we have a copy,” he said. “Things have changed, we aren’t the first stop anymore.”

Despite business dropping by around 40 per cent compared to its heyday, Mr Nasser said that his shop is still doing “okay” because he carries a niche collection of books.

Another tenant at the complex, crafts supply store Art Friend, told TODAY that Bras Basah Complex has seen a low turnover of tenants and that its Bras Basah outlet has not seen a “noticeable fall in footfall”.

Art Friend noted that older anchor tenants such as music store Swee Lee and service providers such as sign makers are still supported by their regular customers and have been sticking around the complex.

“This is more a reflection of the difficulties faced by brick-and-mortar bookstores everywhere. The challenges posed by (e-commerce sites) and increased mobile phone usage are indeed difficult to overcome,” Art Friend said.

Popular bookstore, which has a flagship outlet at the complex that opened in 1980, said: “We have not contemplated leaving Bras Basah Complex, not just for the cultural significance of the complex itself, but also because it is our flagship store and the largest Popular store in Singapore.”

Just because it’s an older shopping mall, doesn’t mean it’s dead. There is so much to offer here, we just hope more people are willing to come and explore.
Ms Joyce Ong, chairperson of the Bras Basah Complex Merchants' Association

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Bras Basah Road bras basah complex shopping centre books online shopping

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