SINGAPORE: It’s a weekday afternoon during the March school holidays and there’s a steady stream of customers at Mr. Pohl Chan’s antique shop at the Beauty World Centre.
There are couples, parents with children and older men and women. Most don’t leave empty-handed. After all, there is something for everyone – from children to adults, from thrillers to comics.
Behind the counter, while naming the price of the books, Mr. Chan says:
“You know, right? I’m closing soon.”
After 55 years of buying and selling books –– 40 of them in this sleepy neighborhood mall — in five months, Mr. Chan will be closing the shutters for good.
The 73-year-old said he was waiting for a situation that left him “no choice” but to shut down, like illness or bankruptcy.
But rent is as good a reason as any, he said. The monthly rent from S$1,400 for his 200 square foot store rose to S$1,800 in April.
It was supposed to go up to S$2,000 but his landlord agreed to lower it after negotiation.
Mr. Chan intends to clean up his inventory of 20,000 books over the next few months before retiring in September.
problems letting go
It’s a decision that Mr. Chan appears to have struggled to make.
“I hate to retire because I have a lot of good clients who support me and the books are like my family, my friends,” he said.
Mr. Chan said he was grateful that he entered the industry at the young age of 12. Having only an elementary school education, he figured he would have to find a manual labor job or do manual labor to make ends meet.
“Actually, my expectation was that in old age I would become a beggar or a casual laborer because I don’t have an education,” he said.
“I’m very lucky, very blessed. Here I have an air conditioner that doesn’t work in the hot sun.”
The eldest of 12 children, he began working early in life to help with his family’s finances. They were so poor that his parents had to give away three children because they couldn’t afford to raise them, Mr Chan said.
The fact that he found a job as an errand boy with a bookstore owner in Sembawang was pure coincidence, he says.
He ran errands like buying coffee for his boss and helped tend the store, Mr Chan said. His boss also taught him to mend books that were often badly bound.
The S$40 he earned a month went towards supporting his family.
In the early days, almost all of Sembawang Bookstore’s customers were Europeans, Mr. Chan said. New books, even the thickest, cost a little over a dollar. (A plate of mee goreng cost 20 cents back then, he added.)
Now new books typically cost at least S$14 and some larger or thicker books cost upwards of S$20, he said.
About five years after starting the bookstore, Mr. Chan started his own business. He had some help from his boss who gave him some books to start with.
He rented a space across from Beauty World until 1983 when his business was moved to the mall by the government. He moved into a 250-square-foot unit in the mall’s basement.
“I was very proud to have a store after starting from scratch,” he said.
Business was good then, and he saved enough to buy a second-floor apartment twice the size.
But as smartphones and social media grew in popularity and fewer and fewer people read for pleasure, the business took a hit. In the early 2000s, things got so bad that Mr. Chan felt he had to fold.
But he decided to move on. He sold his unit and leased a smaller store, a 200-square-foot space on the third floor of the mall, which he still manages today.