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READING SPECIAL

Libraries were where I learnt to love

N.I.B. was where I learnt about romance, the ACJC library was where I tasted it, and NUS' Central Library was where I escaped to recover from it

It was an unlikely place to find love, but there love was, staring at me from rows and rows of books.

More precisely, Mills & Boon romance paperbacks that I spent a large chunk of my teenage years reading and filling my head with ideas about knights in shining armour and happily ever afters.

My love library was N.I.B., a second-hand bookstore in Serangoon Gardens.

 

Back in the 1970s when I was growing up, Serangoon Gardens was a sleepy suburb of single-storey houses, a small cinema and, later, an NTUC supermarket.

N.I.B. was at the end of a row of shophouses in Maju Avenue, up a short flight of steps from the road. The floor was mosaic and there were no doors, only heavy metal grilles you pulled across the entrance. Outside were more racks of books and plastic baskets filled with comics and "annuals" of Beano, Bunty and Dandy.


Readers going through the collection of books at second-hand book store N.I.B in Serangoon Garden Estate in the 1980s. PHOTO: ST FILE

A man sat outside the shop. On the table in front of him were a box of rubber stamps and an ink pad.

Each book came with a little chop with the letters N.I.B. and a number like 1.80, 2.80. This indicated the price for borrowing the book - $1.80, $2.80. When you returned it, he'd give you back a certain sum (50 cents, a dollar? I forget).

While writing this piece, I did some Googling and learnt that N.I.B. actually stood for Nora Ini Bookstore. A newspaper report said it stocked about 10,000 books.

My sister, who's older, introduced me to N.I.B. when I was in Primary 4. We lived just outside Serangoon Gardens and I went to a primary school there - Convent of Our Lady of Good Counsel.

A school bus took me there each day, but on Saturdays when we went to N.I.B., we had to take a public bus. It was like going on an expedition, a treasure hunt.

I grew up with lots of books at home because my parents were big readers, as was my sister. Enid Blyton was a large part of my reading diet and my head swirled with visions of boarding schools, magic trees and midnight feasts.

My primary school had a good library. Besides Enid Blyton, I devoured the Chalet School series by Elinor Mary Brent-Dyer and Robert Arthur Jr's Alfred Hitchcock And The Three Investigators.

Whatever books I couldn't get at home or at school, I got at N.I.B..

By the time I hit secondary school, I had graduated to the store's many Mills & Boon shelves.

By today's standards, these romances of the 1970s were tame, with the kiss sometimes appearing only in the last page.

The plots were simple and predictable: Rich, handsome, inscrutable man meets pretty, demure woman who falls hard for him. But only after a hundred or so pages does he admit his feelings and finally wraps his sinewy arms around her slender waist and kisses her quivering rose-bud lips.

Sometimes, there were plot twists, like women who started off more cold-hearted than the men, or love between step-siblings or scenarios which in today's world would verge on rape or paedophilia.

The books came with titles like The Spanish Grandee, The Icicle Heart and The Tawny Gold Man. They were addictive and my favourite writers were Violet Winspear and Anne Hampson.

By the time I was done with secondary school, I had outgrown Mills & Boon and was hoping to experience romance myself. Which I did, at my next library pit-stop at Anglo-Chinese Junior College.

Nearly all of us came from single-sex schools, which meant this was the first time we were in the same class as the other gender. Teenage hormones were raging.

There were two main areas to boy- and girl-watch - the tuckshop and the library. But there was only so long you could sit and stare at your object of affection in the tuckshop. Everyone could see you gawking too.

The library was the better option because you could pretend to be studying when actually you were looking at him/her from the corner of your book.

The ACJC library was where H and I first spoke.

I had a crush on him, which the boys in my class knew about. One of them was friends with H, and one day when he spotted both of us in the library, he grabbed a bunch of H's books and plonked them on my table and ran away. H had no choice but to walk over and get the books from me. We were both flustered but the ice was broken.

By the time I went to the National University of Singapore, I had tasted romance though, alas, not with H.

At 19, I had a proposal from a much older man and thought I was going to get married. But he changed his mind soon after. He didn't tell me to my face though, and I spent a year wondering what was wrong. When I finally realised it was over, I was heart-broken.

The NUS Central Library saved me from falling into depression.

It was big, sprawling, cold and impersonal. I could lose myself among the carrels and shelves.

I discovered John Updike who wrote about sex in American small towns, campus fiction writer David Lodge, quaint turn-of-the-20th century writer Jerome K. Jerome and humorists like S. J. Perelman and Dorothy Parker.

The Central Library also had a marvellous section on art books. I loved the grotesque, erotic world of 19th-century British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and I went crazy over Georges Braque's lithograph series of birds. I made copies of the drawings I liked at the Central Library's photocopying machines.

What was a broken heart when there was so much to discover in literature and art?

After university, I stopped going to libraries. These days, Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City is the closest thing to a library for me.

N.I.B. in Serangoon Gardens has long gone.

When H and I got our wedding photos done at ACJC, we didn't stop to look in at the library.

I doubt I'll ever step into NUS' Central Library again.

Just like how favourite old books can disappoint when you revisit them, so too, I think, can places where you'd spent happy years of your earlier life.

These libraries where I discovered, tasted and recovered from love reside only in my head now - private spaces I revisit once in a while.


• Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Love and the library'. Print Edition | Subscribe