At new indie bookstore The Moon, women writers are the stars

Sarah Naeem (left), owner of The Moon, with her right-hand woman Li Jia Qian. The Moon is a new independent bookstore with a focus on female writers and diverse books.
Sarah Naeem (left), owner of The Moon, with her right-hand woman Li Jia Qian. The Moon is a new independent bookstore with a focus on female writers and diverse books.ST PHOTO: SYAZA NISRINA

SINGAPORE - One can now say "meet me at The Moon" and not have to go any further than Chinatown, where a street of Szechuan restaurants and hostels welcomes an unusual new addition: independent bookstore The Moon.

At the shop, which launches officially on Friday (Sept 21) with a party that will include music, poetry and tarot card readings, at least half the books are by female writers.

Owner Sarah Naeem, 27, got the idea for the bookstore two years ago when she invited her Singaporean friend Lee Jiaqian, 25, to visit Readings, a secondhand bookshop "full of dust and character" in her hometown of Lahore, Pakistan.

They were browsing the philosophy section when they realised they could not find any books by female philosophers.

This seemed remiss - but if so, they realised, they ought to do something about it.

"It's easy to complain about the things around you," says Ms Naeem. "But that's not the same as consciously making an effort to change them."

The Singapore permanent resident, who moved here to study eight years ago, quit her job in client service at a branding agency last year and decided she would fulfil her dream of starting a bookstore where the shelves would be stocked with works by women and writers of colour.

At The Moon, for instance, Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo's novel Ponti shares a shelf with Korean-American writer Krys Lee's tale of exile, How I Became A North Korean, and American speculative fiction writer Naomi Alderman's The Power.

Ms Lee, who had a marketing job, but, like Ms Naeem, was so stressed by it that she kept falling sick, came on board as Ms Naeem's "right-hand woman", and eventually quit her job too to focus on The Moon full-time.

"I would have regretted it if I didn't try it," she says.

The Moon - named after a flight of whimsy - takes up the first and third floors of a shophouse in Mosque Street. Besides books, the first floor houses a cafe.

The third floor - referred to as "Over The Moon" - is an event space that can be rented for performances, private functions and so on.

Three weeks ago, it hosted Stupid Cupid, a play by local theatre company Patch And Punnet.

The bookstore is full of calibrated touches from Ms Naeem and Ms Lee, from the cafe wallpaper of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother, to the jazz and blues piped in the background and the precise level of mood lighting.

It is "terrifying", they say, to open a bookstore in a market that has not been favourable for the book trade.

A recent casualty of the retail slump was four-year-old independent bookshop Booktique, which shuttered at CityLink Mall last year, although it has since been reborn in a series of pop-up book fairs around the island.

Staying profitable remains a challenge, say other local independent bookstores.

High rentals and operating costs make it tough going, says Mr Kenny Leck, owner of Tiong Bahru bookstore BooksActually, which is trying to fund-raise so it can buy its own space. It has raised $20,000 so far - 1 per cent of its $2 million goal.

Ms Sheela Moorthy, director of eight-year-old Duxton bookstore Littered With Books, says efficient inventory and keeping costs lean are key to survival.

"Running a bookstore is not, at least for me, purely a business decision. A very large part of this is a labour of love."

Failure is "not an option" for Ms Naeem, who took a $150,000 loan from her family, which runs a textile business in Pakistan, and also dipped into her own savings to open The Moon.

What they want to build in The Moon is a place that can become the heart of a community.

"This has to be an experience," says Ms Naeem.

"It's not about you buying a book and leaving - you could find that online. It's about that sense of warmth and comfort, and expanding your horizons."