Lost in books

A bookshop is a sanctuary, a hunting ground and a shrine all rolled into one

Quiet, please. A reading is happening in Kinokuniya in the Family & Relationships section on a Thursday evening.

The reader is dressed in white shorts and a white cotton shirt. He leans on a pillar of books and holds one aloft as he reads aloud. His audience is, in fact, only himself. He is a book shopper in a literary trance.

I am watching shiftily from the corner and scribbling notes like an informer. This entire day, one might say, is dedicated to the written word. From 9.15am to 8pm, I will be in Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City, a wanderer among words, poking through shelves and into the reading habits of visitors.

Once, long ago, even a myna flew into the shop. In search presumably of any bestsellers on birds and insects. 

I arrive before the shutters rise and stand with the blue-smocked protectors of the books: the staff who arrange shelves, replace novels we toss aside and lead us to the promised land of books we can never find. The erudite store director, Mr Kenny Chan, who reads roughly 100 books and graphic novels a year and has forfeited a career in stand-up, addresses his clan and then together, as if in homage to the idea of courtesy, they recite their service words.

As I wander past Literature, peek at Romance,take a left to Religion, double back to Travel Maps, flee past Civil Engineering, it strikes me that this bookshop is a place of humility: As it surrounds us with nearly 2,000 magazines and 500,000books, divided into29major classifications, it reminds us of how little we know of life.

May I help you? Could you wait for a moment, please? Sorry to have kept you waiting. Thank you very much. Please come again.

Then the doors open and the bookshop becomes this unique intersection of humanity's sweeping interests.

A man with greying long hair, a sort of worn-down hippie, flips through a rock 'n' roll magazine. Mr Oliver Chan, 60, who says "there are not many bookshops this size left", enjoys religious books.

Ms Lin Li, 33, who makes wedding dresses and kids' clothes, is searching for sewing books and relishes the tactile pleasure of both fabric and books.

In this great gathering of the curious, every request is treated respectfully. Someone needs Sandra Cabot's liver cleansing diet and a woman gently blushes as she asks Information for David Duchovny's new book: It is called Bucky F***ing Dent and she cannot say the swear word in the title. An elderly gent tells me he is looking for a book on how to die, which is a bit unsettling. I ask if he has read Atul Gawande's Being Mortal? Yes, he evenly says, but it is not what he seeks.

As I wander past Literature, peek at Romance, take a left to Religion, double back to Travel Maps, flee past Civil Engineering, it strikes me that this bookshop is a place of humility: As it surrounds us with nearly 2,000 magazines and 500,000 books, divided into 29 major classifications, it reminds us of how little we know of life. We come to learn even as we accept our ignorance.

There can be an intimidation to Kinokuniya's size, yet it adds to the pleasure of the hunt. We arrive often to find a particular book and yet, occasionally, by wandering into aisles we've overlooked, we stumble upon books we never thought we would read and discover new parts of ourselves.

In my ferreting around shelves, I find instructions in pom-pom making, a mathematics book titled The Call Of The Primes, a magazine called History Of War and separate books on the healing powers of tea, olive oil and flax. I did not buy them - I am adventurous to a point - but someone will. Which is why we should all give quiet thanks to Ms Felicia Low (English fiction) and a band of book buyers, who sit in an adjoining office and scan social media, peruse publishers' catalogues and use wisdom and gut feel to try and anticipate everyone's taste.

In a high-strung city, Kinokuniya is a meditative corner. I do not hear a phone ring but instead only the intermittent whisper of "excuse me", which makes me consider: Could this be the politest place in Singapore?

Ms Clare Powell, 37, who compliments the selection of yoga books, speaks for us all: "I find it calming."

Like an author who prefers a specific paper to write on, the reader, too, is hostage to ritual. Most move slowly here in that very particular bookshop ballet: shuffle, bend, trace a spine, tug a book, open, stand, still. There are no stools here for they do not wish to encourage idle loungers like the woman who sat down and gave herself a pedicure.

Down the egalitarian lanes of this shop, all types of characters collect. Once a woman produced a tattered copy of James Clavell's Shogun and wished to return it. When Mr Chan gently asked why, she asserted she had read it and did not like the story.

Everyone views books differently. Some as precious which is possibly why one reader arrived with gloves on, others as offensive which is why another objected to books on black magic. Many readers simply meet over words, fall in love over sentences and return to have wedding photos taken among the racks.

The staff, says Ms Suni Eckhoff, 66, a visiting Kiwi, are "very good and knowledgeable" and evidently also patient. Not to mention holders of detective badges. After all, they must decipher requests like these: I saw a book at the airport yesterday with a blue cover, this size, with letters in front. Do you have it?

By lunch time, the crowd swells - roughly 10,000 pass through on weekdays - and I amble through the aisles of what Ms Eckhoff calls "a genuine, old-fashioned bookshop". A beautiful addiction is at work here or as Henry Ward Beecher, a clergyman, once said: "Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?"

Mr Peter Panayiotou would agree for already he has 10 books - from hedge funds to the Israeli special forces - in his basket. He brandishes Treasure Island, insists children should read the classics and says when I ask if he owns a Kindle: "No, no, no."

Neither does Micco Cruz, a 15-year-old who has Marlon James and Paulo Coelho in his hands and is trying to squeeze as many books as he can into his $100 budget. "I like the feel and smell of books," he says. "New books have a different smell from second-hand books."

Like selecting a fine suit, books must be tried on and their fit must be considered. And so people consider fonts, examine point sizes, evaluate covers - there are eight different versions of To Kill A Mockingbird - check if it is a New York Times bestseller, read the blurbs. Then they open a first page and a dazzling anticipation is at work: They are waiting for the music of a sentence, the sketch of a scene or the sparkle of an idea to hold them. And, of course, it happens.

Evening's last light spills through a window on one side as I float past Food & Drinks and drift through Architecture like a man adrift in a sea of sentences. In a glass case, tomes on Elvis Presley and Charlie Chaplin keep one another company; in a crate lies a collector's edition of Genesis by photographer Sebastiao Salgado for $7,918; in a corner, a cut-out of Wonder Woman keeps watch with the Lasso of Truth in her hand. Is this a shop or a sanctuary?

I buy a book, of course I do. I thank Ms Chua Gek Huay, division manager, corporate relations, and a flock of Kinokuniya folk who have answered my every query - How many stepladders? Thirty-four - and as I wander home, I carry an image as old as bookshops, but always comforting.

Amid a triangle of bookcases, five strangers are huddled, each one a statue with an open book and a craned neck.

It strikes me that bookshops are public places yet exquisitely private. We may stand in the same space, but we ride the imagination of writers to different destinations. Where else in life, we might ask, are we so happily lost?

More Reading Special stories here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Lost in books'. Subscribe