If independent bookstore Wardah Books gets crowded these days, patrons may browse for only 15 minutes. When more than five people wander into the Bussorah Street shophouse, owner Ibrahim Tahir locks the door to prevent more from coming in.
"People get frustrated," says the 46-year-old. "But these have to be the rules now."
These are difficult days in which to run a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Singapore, in between the drought of the Covid-19 circuit breaker and phase one periods and the safe distancing restrictions that prevent booksellers from hosting the events that usually draw customers.
Independent bookstore BooksActually announced earlier this month that it would be closing its iconic Tiong Bahru store and going fully online. It is moving to a shophouse in Jalan Besar, from which it will run its webstore and, when phase three rolls round, once more hold the events that made it one of the linchpins of the local literary community.
The 16 bookstores The Straits Times spoke to said that brick-and-mortar sales have plummeted since before the circuit breaker, some by 30 per cent, others by as much as 90 per cent.
Online sales surged in this time.
At Wardah, which specialises in books about Muslim issues, Mr Ibrahim was shocked to see his webstore go from 10 to 100 orders a day.
As he had sent his staff home before the circuit breaker, he had to handle the orders alone.
"It was quite tough, but we knew we had to meet the moment and establish a bigger foothold in the online book business," he says.
Some tried new strategies. In May, Popular launched its online store on LazMall, Lazada's e-commerce platform.
Times Bookstores began holding book sales over Facebook Live, with customers texting a number to place orders. This, plus its Web platform Goguru.sg, increased its online sales fivefold, a spokesman said.
But for most bookstores, online gains have not been enough to make up for lost footfall. Basheer Graphic Books owner Abdul Nasser, 56, said that while Covid-19 drove home the potential of his webstore, it has not replaced lost earnings at his Bras Basah store, especially from visitors from around the region.
During the circuit breaker, book retailer Closetful Of Books saw sales at its webstore go up by 50 per cent, but though it has no physical storefront to worry about, much of its business still depends on school book fairs.
"This means setting up an online ordering system for parents and also doing online book talks for the classes so that we can give as much of the face-to-face book fair experience to the kiddos," says co-founder Denise Tan, 32. Still, she adds, it is hard to virtually replicate the experience of recommending a book to a child.
At least two bookstore owners said that without the Government's Jobs Support Scheme subsidising staff pay, they would have already folded.
"We didn't have a webstore then, so we were caught off guard, kelam kabut (Malay for a chaotic panic)," says Ms Shannon Ong, 43, co-owner of BooksActually's neighbour, children's store Woods In The Books, as well as Books Ahoy! in Forum The Shopping Mall.
"By the end of May, our company bank account had three digits in it. Our monthly rent is four figures."
To survive, it began curating care packs of books and toys to send to customers, fielding queries over WhatsApp well into the night because it feared losing a single sale. "Every package I sent out was hope," says Ms Ong.
Many had to tighten the belt. At publisher Epigram Books, staff took a 20 to 25 per cent pay cut. Founder Edmund Wee halved his own salary.
Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop, which Epigram opened with coffee chain Huggs in the Urban Redevelopment Authority Centre in March last year, has had a third of its brief life blighted by the pandemic.
"We had not stabilised," says Mr Wee, 68. "To have to stop operations at that outlet was a blow."
He adds that Huggs is now negotiating with its landlord for a lower rent, without which the book cafe's future is uncertain.
Especially hard hit were the bookshops with zero online presence, like some of the old-school Chinese-language bookstores in Bras Basah Complex, where many senior customers still prefer to browse in person.
Mr Yeo Oi Sang, 81, has spent 64 years in the books business, 38 of them running Xinhua Cultural Enterprises in Bras Basah Complex. This is the worst things have ever been, he says in Mandarin.
"I haven't drawn a salary in six years. Now business is down 90 per cent. I don't even know how we're going to pay the utility bills."
When bookstores were allowed to open in June, people queued in droves as the shutters rolled up on Books Kinokuniya's main store in Ngee Ann City.
Three months on, the excitement has wavered. A spokesman said that though snaking queues are still seen on weekend afternoons, these do not necessarily translate into sales. It is working on introducing more pre-ordering of upcoming publications, as well as back-ordering of titles not stocked at its three physical outlets.
One challenge booksellers face is delayed stocks, as the supply chain takes a hammering from the pandemic. "Tell some customers to wait eight weeks," says Woods In The Books' Ms Ong, "and they will go online to Amazon."
Another is juggling safe distancing with turnover. The Moon in Chinatown recently introduced a 90-minute limit for its cafe on weekends. "We don't want to tell people to leave," says owner Sarah Naeem, 29, "but someone buying a coffee in the morning and staying for five hours is not good for the bottom line."
Chinese-language bookshop City Book Room has put in place safe management measures like temperature-taking and disinfecting books, though owner Tan Wain Ching, 37, quips that it is not like it gets many walk-ins anyway. "We practise social distancing all the time."
A bookstore owner's biggest enemy is rental, she adds. "We just renewed a two-year contract with our landlord before the circuit breaker. So we need to move forward."
Despite rental woes compounded with downturn-dampened consumer sentiment, most booksellers still want to hold on to their physical stores.
"We cannot go fully online," says Chinese-language bookstore Union Book Co's managing director Margaret Ma, 54, in Mandarin. "Our customers, old people especially, want to walk around Bras Basah Complex, look at books and have tea downstairs. They need this sense of community."
At neighbouring Maha Yu Yi, general manager Sung Jee Tong, 55, agrees. "It's like (athletic shoe brand) Nike. You can get its shoes online, but it still needs to have a physical store so you can try them on before you buy."
But Covid-19 has nevertheless compelled them, and other bookstores, to make fresh forays into the digital sphere, from The Moon's new literary podcast, The Same Page, to the microsite that Closetful Of Books is building for the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival.
Last Friday, Epigram launched its revamped webstore, which combines its own publications with titles from the Huggs-Epigram shop. In the future, it will add those from LocalBooks.sg, an online platform for local books.
MPH Bookstores, which has one Singapore outlet at SingPost Centre but no local webstore, is developing a new "omni-channel" platform to be launched next year.
MPH chief operating officer Donald Kee declines to reveal details, but says this plan pre-dates the Covid-19 outbreak. "Online will be our main driver while retail will be a subset of our online store for customers to touch and feel as well as interact with our service staff."
Entering into the online retail scene will mean contending with Amazon Singapore. The e-commerce giant has begun making its presence felt of late in the local literary scene, sponsoring a prize at this year's Singapore Book Awards. There are more than 2,000 local titles available on Amazon.sg.
"Amazon provides the opportunity for small businesses to stand beside big brands and for local books to be placed beside international bestsellers online," says a spokesman.
"We believe we can help the local book community grow beyond the Singapore scene in the long term."
Mr Wee says he was reluctant to let Amazon sell Epigram's titles, but it acquired them through his distributor anyway. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "It would be nice if they also helped us sell our books overseas, but they don't."
Mr Peter Schoppert, a representative of the Singapore Book Publishers Association, which organises the Singapore Book Awards, says that having highly effective online booksellers in the local market is important, especially in times like the circuit breaker.
But he adds: "Amazon's practice of deep discounting from retail prices does undercut the already precarious situation of our local bookshops.
"If the discounts are the result of greater efficiencies, that is one thing, but if Amazon is using books as a loss leader to build market share for other product categories, as it did in the United States, that's damaging to our industry. In many other countries, policies are in place to protect the local books ecosystem from such practices."
Books Kinokuniya consultant Kenny Chan, 68, says competition is positive, provided it is on a level playing field. "We have other charms to draw customers," he adds, citing Kinokuniya's range and curation, which depend not just on data but the tastes of in-house merchandisers and buyers.
Over in Chinatown, as The Moon passes its second birthday quietly prepping for next month's launch of a new subscription box of "things we think you should be reading", Ms Naeem seems unfazed.
"Brick-and-mortar bookstores remain important," she says. "But we should be open to exploring the possibilities of how the digital landscape can allow us to reach more people. We're still researching what that online community looks like."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2020, with the headline Pandemic leaves bookshops in a bind. Subscribe