This article was first published in The New York Times Style Magazine on 23 May2019.
Photography by Tung Pham, Feature Image Styling by Michelle Kok
Inside the newly established Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop, located within The URA Centre in bustling Chinatown, sits an 11-metre long bookshelf that extends from floor to the ceiling. Sitting in neat rows is an eclectic selection of books, which run the gamut from local literary novels to multilingual graphic novels.
Opened in March, the 40-seater bookshop is a partnership between Singapore’s largest independent publisher Epigram Books and homegrown coffee chain Huggs Coffee. Huggs Epigram Coffee Bookshop is the first of its kind to sell only books — over 400 titles — written about the city, penned by Singaporean authors, or published locally.
“When we set up Epigram Books nearly eight years ago in publishing, we wanted to champion Singapore literature and books,” says Edmund Wee, founder of Epigram Books. “Extending our operations into the retail scene is marked by this same desire.”
Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop is a cabinet of curiosities featuring works from Singapore literary pioneers, such as Goh Poh Seng and Edwin Thumboo, and contemporary classics to novels like Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy. Joining their ranks are international graphic novels and picture books, which have been translated to English, to appeal to the younger generation.
“When we first started, I realised nobody was publishing books for our kids. Picture books we see are often from the States or the United Kingdom. They were books of princesses and castles,” says Wee. “If we were going to encourage Singaporeans to start reading extensively, why not expose them to books from countries apart from the States or the United Kingdom?”
In the contemporary cultural landscape today, books continue to remain relevant as a form of escapism and stress relief. And for young countries, like Singapore, they continue to play a prominent role in forming a national narrative.
“[Our national narrative] is a negative one. It’s about nation building. We need to go beyond that. If we have more people reading and writing local stories, it will eventually become a common narrative that describes who Singaporeans are and should be,” justifies Wee.
Chronicling the growth of Singapore’s literary scene since the nation’s founding, Wee reveals three distinctive phases: the first is of new world discovery, where authors and writers penned fervently about Singapore’s prospects; the second is a deprivation of sorts, as our forefathers strove to build an identity; and the third is a resurgence.
“There are more people who know how to write today. These are people who go for creative writing courses and get degrees from it. But many of them are not full-time writers because writing still doesn’t pay enough to survive,” says Wee. Recalling a time when people would look down on books written by Singaporean authors or are published by Singaporean publishers, the 66-yearold admits that it took the collective efforts of independent bookstores and publishers to assuage the past prejudices.
“It is tough being a publisher because you don’t sell enough. In order to survive then, some publishers were cutting corners,” he says. “When we started, we didn’t want to cut cost. So, we hired in-house editors, full-time designers, made sure we used good paper, and had proper designs. This created a healthy competition amongst other publishers and the quality starts to improve too.”
To date, the independent book publisher has also launched the Epigram Books Fiction Prize to promote contemporary Singapore creative writing and reward excellence in Singapore literature. “In a sea of book titles available for selection, the tagging of an award (winner or shortlisted) does nudge a new reader to pick it up and browse. For that, I am grateful,” says Sebastian Sim, whose novel “The Riot Act” won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2017.
At a time where larger contenders of the book market grapple to linger on, Wee continues to strive to champion the literary scene. And for many local authors, the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop is a beacon of hope and recognition for Singaporean titles. “Shelf space is precious. Smaller bookstores tend to have a faster turnover rate. Bookshops, like Times and Popular, often give priority to textbooks or reference books for students. They tend not to have the shelf space to allow a local title to stay longer. Local indie bookshops, like Epigram Books and BooksActually, that commit a large portion of their shelf space to Singapore Literature (SingLit), are a godsend,” says Sim.
In a world fuelled with relentless connectivity and hence, constant distraction, some worry that superficiality would win out while our ability to make sense and meaning of narratives diminishes. The pursuit of instant gratifications from social media and the internet are often seen to swallow up our hours whole and leaving lesser time to read. A survey conducted by the National Library Board (NLB) in 2017 reported that just two in 10 adult Singaporeans were reading books or e-books. While in the United States, fewer are finding themselves reading for pleasure as they did before.
But Wee begs to differ. Distractions, to him, have never been much of a stumbling block that hinders reading. “We have always been distracted by something else. In the past, we were distracted with fighting spiders and kite flying,” he adds. “To me, distraction in the face of social media is not new, reading is something that you have to discipline yourself to do. You got to tell yourself that it is a good thing.”
Despite such bleak projections, collective efforts in the industry have spurred a revival movement in the SingLit scene. For Daryl Yam, author of “Kappa Quartet” — which was longlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, the rising competitiveness between industry partners begets better quality work.
“I would encourage more competition as well, as the ultimate push for local publishers to remain sharp, and diligent, and wise. A fiercer industry — fiercer for all the right reasons, that is — would only lead to better, more rigorous work. Work that is better marketed, better edited, better designed for the consumer in mind,” says Yam, who is presently penning his subsequent novels.
The endless conundrum on the fate of our bookshops will continue to ring throughout the industry. For now, the local literary scene has taken a huge step forward and became a lot more robust than what it used to be. And given the ongoing slew of support, it will continue to flourish.