SINGAPORE - Amid the flurry of pandemic-driven retail closures, a new bookstore is braving the waters in Orchard Road.
Zall Bookstore, an outlet for Chinese-language titles, opens on Monday (Feb 8) at Wheelock Place, near where the iconic Borders flagship was located till its closure in 2011.
The two-storey space stocks more than 30,000 books, mostly in Chinese, and also has a cafe and an art gallery.
The Singapore store is the first overseas branch for Zall, which has four bookshops in Hubei, China.
Zall Bookstores was founded in 2013 by billionaire Yan Zhi, a writer and poet who has published some 18 books.
His daughter Laura Yan Ge, 24, who is general manager of the Singapore store, said at a media preview on Friday that while the company did not anticipate the coronavirus outbreak erupting amid its expansion, it believes bookstores are especially vital during a pandemic.
"Because of Covid-19, there is a lot of distance between people nowadays," she said in Mandarin. "We believe books will help to close this gap. They provide food for thought and people can use them to widen their worlds."
She added: "Many small independent bookstores have closed due to the pandemic, and I think that is a great pity. I hope there will continue to be many more physical bookstores in the future."
The bookstore's gleaming black-and-white design is inspired by calligraphy and the architecture of Jiangnan Watertown, with an arch resembling a river bridge.
A revolving bookcase on the second floor leads to a hidden art gallery, where an exhibition, Reading From N Angles, featuring five Singapore-based artists, including Boo Sze Yang and Justin Lee, will open on Monday.
The store's offerings include Chinese literature, humanities, history, and philosophy from China and Taiwan, as well as English titles and a range of stationery.
It also has a section on books about the Covid-19 pandemic, including two written by Mr Yan and translated into English by his daughter, on the establishment of emergency hospitals and shelters.
Mr Yan's Zall Group provided medical supplies and humanitarian aid to field hospitals and quarantine facilities in Wuhan, the original epicentre of the outbreak.
Zall is also involved in e-commerce, shopping mall development, wholesale trading and logistics.
Ms Yan hopes to emulate the 24-hour model of Zall's China stores, though the Singapore outlet will not be operating round-the-clock for now due to the current pandemic restrictions.
"It has been quite a successful business model for us," she said. "We find that late at night, there are many people who cannot sleep and want to go out. Bookstores are the ideal place for them to pass the wee hours, as they are very quiet and you can enjoy a kind of pure, solitary reading experience."
Ms Yan, who has lived in Singapore for seven years, declined to say how much the company has invested in the new store, or to comment on how its Wuhan outlet is faring.
Zall opens as Singapore's bookstores are struggling or giving up their brick-and-mortar spaces to move online, as independent bookshop BooksActually did last year.
"Of course, we have some worries about the pandemic," said Ms Yan. "And there are many distractions these days, so people may not be as drawn to books as they were before. But I believe that a love for books still exists, as does the power of reading.
"This is not going to be just a bookstore, it will be a place for people to meet and have cultural exchanges."
Zall Bookstore will be open at Wheelock Place, 501 Orchard Road, from 11am on Monday. For more information, go to Zall Bookstore's Facebook page.