Singapore: a book lover’s guide
The last time I was in Singapore was just before the world was turned upside down by COVID19. It was the end of February, and the city was quieter than I had ever seen her. Chinatown was all but deserted, and the underground trains were still busy with many facemask wearers and social distancing was being tentatively and suspiciously observed at best. At that time it was still inconceivable that the world would change so much for us all, so I was still quite happy to wander the streets with my disposable facemask and enjoy that all-embracing warmth on the surface and the ordered glitziness of the subterranean shopping malls.
I had to gear up for self-isolation- so a pile of books is a good way to use such a time wisely. There are oodles of bookstores in Singapore- and the vast shopping mall stores can satiate the most voracious of readers. As you may know by now, I do like to get to know a place a little better each time I visit- and there is much more to this beautiful place than all those clean, well-organised, air-conditioned shopping malls.
I usually stay in the area around the Bugis shopping precinct. The biggest bookshop at the Bugis centre is the Books Kinokuniya Bugis Junction, which have a great range of international magazines, fiction and non-fiction and animae and graphic novels for Miss E. It sells a lot of Japanese language materials for those who are Japanese or clever enough to learn it.
Nearby is the Arab area, Sim Lin electronics building, the National Design Centre and the Bras Basah precinct behind the National Library. I have frequented all these places after I have bought all my necessaries from the Bugis centre. These are all in easy walking distance unless it is pelting with rain. (Then they are in ‘difficult’ walking distance.)
The Bras Basah Centre
I spent most of the morning wandering this complex- it was a nerd heaven of old-style stores for stationery, art supplies, and new and second-hand books, periodicals, maps and collectables. There are too many to review and mention- it is more a place for wandering around and losing oneself than having a plan. Here are a couple of notable stores in the complex:
Basheer Graphic Books (small, independent and quirky)
A few stories up is this lovely store with titles relating to graphic design. Jam-crammed with architecture, fashion, typography and art books. Wiggle your way through the aisles for an eclectic mix of very cool and collectable design related gifts. Here I bought some Manga books for Miss E and a shopping bag proclaiming my love of cats and books.
Basheer Graphic Books, 231 Bain Street, Bras Basah Complex, Singapore, +65 6336 1917
POPULAR (for a more extensive, chain store type experience)
Popular is one of the most visited bookstores in all of Singapore- it is very Popular. It is Singapore’s oldest and biggest bookstore with an extensive collection of all genres and an excellent educational books section. It’s also huge, so is perfect for zoning out for a while and getting away from the sun, rain and crowds. I hovered longer than I needed to on account of the air conditioning. I didn’t buy any books here, but I did invest the best powerbank I have ever had in bookshop’s sister electronics store. It has 4 cords- so I can charge all my devices at once. I know I sound overly excited about having a good powerbank- but I live with two people who have stolen all my good ones.
04-23/33, Blk 231 Bain Street, Downtown Core, COMPLEX, 180231, Singapore, +6563390772
It was actually quite a treat being able to wander the city without the crowds. After gorging myself on Szechuan deep-fried green beans, a steaming bowl of noodle soup and a very large bottle of Tiger beer somewhere in the deserted Chinatown, I continued my quest of finding the loveliest bookshops in the city.
Littered With Books
Tucked away on Duxton Road and looking like a tall, blue detached building from a Dr Seuss illustration, Littered with Books is a charming little book store set over two levels packed with readings of all kinds, shapes, and genres, from mystery-novels to classics and children’s books and an excellent non-fiction section. My favourite part of the shop was a wall with playing card-sized mini-posters with art, quotes, book recommendations and overall feel-good inspiration. They were pretty strict- no photography allowed inside the shop- which is such a pity as I would love to have shared the place with you all.
20 Duxton Road, Chinatown, Singapore, 89486, Singapore +6562206824
Insert a little wine break here- the gorgeous little ‘Frenchie’.
This area is one of my favourite parts of Singapore as it has a bit of character and history as well as being a tribute to the Art Deco period of architecture. It also has beautiful bookshops and a place to sit and read them with a glass of wine and a snack.
The name of the area reveals its history. A mix of Hokkien and Malay, the name Tiong Bahru translates to “new cemetery”. Before being developed in the 1920s by the Singapore Improvement Trust, the area contained burial grounds for the Cantonese and Hakka communities.
The public housing in this neighbourhood is the oldest complex in Singapore, and the only one not built by the Housing Development Board (HDB).
When construction of the housing estates finally started in the late 1930s, the Singapore Improvement Trust decided to follow the Art-Deco style that was popular at the time. When the flats opened in 1936, they were priced too high to be affordable for ordinary people. This led to the neighbourhood being a popular choice for members of the upper class and some rich men even kept their mistresses housed in these council flats. (Check out the escape stairwells!)
During the Japanese Occupation, many people moved into the area and by the end of the war, the neighbourhood had decreased in value and more middle-class families started moving into the blocks. It is apparently a bit of a hipster enclave now. That works to my advantage, as where there are hipsters, there is good coffee, wine and bookstores. Frumpy middle-aged ladies like that kind of stuff too, you know!
Books Actually is (actually) my new favourite place in Singapore! It is an independent bookstore and the staff are friendly and knowledgeable. They specialise in classic, home-grown Singaporean literature and lots of types of book that appeals to a very niche crowd. I spent nearly an hour in here just trying to narrow down my purchases so I didn’t have to up my baggage weight limit. They also have a book vending machine outside! I ended up with, among other tomes, a narrative on Bowie in his Berlin years, a history of Ukraine, a collection of Singaporean philosophy notes, Hermann Hesse’s reflection on a tour to the ‘Orient’ and a vintage map of Singapore in the days the Bugis ruled the waves and the river.
Books Actually, 9 Yong Siak St, Singapore, +65 6222 9195
Woods in the Books
A few doors down from my now favourite address in Singapore at no. 3 is a delightful little independent children’s book store. I visited it just to have a look, as Miss E already has plenty of books and she suddenly and inexplicably announced at the age of 9 that reading is boring and she doesn’t like it anymore. Graphic novels are an exception, and my hand luggage was already full from the Kinokuniya at the Bugis Centre. I recommend it though. It’s gorgeous and made me fleetingly consider a new career as a children librarian.
No. 3 Yong Siak St, Singapore 168642
(Insert another wine break here…)
PS.Cafe Petit Tiong Bahru
This cosy little tropical-themed bistro was just what I needed for a break between bookshops. I found it when I saw a cat wandering down the street- which I followed (of course) and it lead me onto the street with this lovely café. Its menu is a takeaway one, but can also be consumed on site. Grab a seat near the leafy feature wall overlooking the streetscape, or out back and surround yourself in a wall of wine- order a glass of wine and wait for the world go by… or begin reading! I felt like I was in a little wine bar in eastern Europe, with the dark interior, the fabulous wines by the glass list and the colonial era potted palms.
PS.Cafe Petit Tiong Bahru, #01-41, Block 78 Guan Chuan Street, Singapore 160078
To be fair, this little shop was the beginning of this entire blog post. I found it online and it wasn’t at the Bras Basah Centre anymore, so I discovered this precinct in my quest to find this little gift shop.
It’s not a book shop, however it does sell little gift books and postcards. And it has a cat, although I wasn’t allowed to pat it. Quirky is a good way to describe the collection of souvenirs and trinkets here. It also showcases local and independent brands.
Cat Socrates, #01-14, 78 Yong Siak Street, Singapore 163078
Here are a couple of websites I absolutely love when I am doing any research about Singapore and most other places I am lucky enough to visit)- the Honeycombers and Culture Trip. (Culture Trip article a bit old and needs updating- for example Earshot Cafe is no more- but was an excellent start to my little adventure.)
Other notable little shops around here can be found in the Honeycombers guide; my favourites were the vinyl record store and a lovely space selling African fashions and jewellery- beautiful vibrant colours and textures.
You could do all these bookshops in a day, but I would advise to take your time and enjoy the architecture and the vibes of these lovely little precincts and neighbourhoods.
I am a sucker for beautiful writing, and this poem by Hermann Hesse from his collection ‘Singapore Dream and Other Adventures’ was written about the coast of Africa but summed up my feelings for Singapore. The warmth of the sun on my face and the promise of such earthly delights and pleasant surprises makes me feel that all is right with the world, if only for a while.