Retirees open bookstore at Old Airport Road hawker centre

Five retirees (from left) Chan Wai Han, Richard Chong, Sng-Fun Poh Yoke, Fong Hoe Fang and Vienna Fong opened a bookshop called Dakota Dreams, selling children's books and comics by Singapore authors as well as pre-loved titles. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - On the second floor of Old Airport Road hawker centre, an unassuming little bookstore has appeared.

Called Dakota Dreams, it sells children's books and comics by Singapore authors as well as pre-loved titles.

Its neighbours are clothing stores and a Covid-19 Quick Test Centre. Elderly residents stop by to browse magazines; children pull their grandparents over to look at the picture books on the racks.

When it comes to bookshop locations, a hawker centre may not seem the obvious choice. But to the five founders of Dakota Dreams - all retired or semi-retired, several with some prior connection to the book industry - it makes sense.

"It is unusual," says retired lecturer Sng-Fun Poh Yoke, 68. "People are often surprised to see us here. But why not? Our motto has always been to reach out to ordinary folks who may not even go to a mall, let alone a bookshop, but who do go to the market or hawker centre."

Dakota Dreams was first dreamt up when long-time Dakota resident Vienna Fong, 54, who volunteers with seniors in the area, grew concerned about the elderly experiencing isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

She roped in her Cantonese opera-singing friends Chan Wai Han, 65, and Madam Sng-Fun, a former Straits Times arts and bilingual editor.

Madam Chan's husband Fong Hoe Fang, 67, the retired founder of local publisher Ethos Books, and Mr Richard Chong, 67, who used to work in printing and book distribution, also came on board.

In October, they pooled their funds and tendered for a locked-up unit at Old Airport Road, initially with the aim of giving lonely seniors in the area somewhere to hang out. Then, given Mr Fong's publishing roots, the space began filling up with books.

Mr Fong estimates there are about 20 to 30 titles in the store at present, from Constance Singam's children's book The Birds In The Bamboo Tree (2021) to Joshua Chiang's comic mini-series Ronin Rat & Ninja Cat (2019).

It sells new books for $9 to $12 and pre-loved ones for $2 to $5. All proceeds go towards the rent and overheads for the space, which cost less than $1,000 a month. The five retirees take turns volunteering to run the shop.

The books may be the main draw, they say, but people come for more than that. Seniors will stop by to ask for help with their phones or advice on whether something is a scam. Parents may leave their kids at the shop while they run errands.

A Dakota resident, who gives her name as Madam Chua, sits outside the store, perusing a cooking magazine. "I live with my son and when he's out at work, I'm alone at home," says the 71-year-old in Mandarin. "It's nice to have somewhere to come out to sit."

Dakota Dreams also sells crafts and cards made by seniors and plans to organise events like storytelling sessions for children in the new year, depending on the Covid-19 situation.

"We believe in active ageing," says Madam Sng-Fun, who does not want her mind to "get mouldy" in retirement.

"It's a way we can contribute back to society," adds Mr Fong. "What society has given to us, we try to give back."

Dakota Dreams is at 02-55, 51 Old Airport Road. It is open from 11am to 5pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays.

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