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Thursday 1 September 2011

The Penang Bookshelf - August 2011 Newsletter

The Penang Bookshelf
August 2011 Newsletter
From The Penang Bookshelf

Dear Friend,

A Month of Abstinence,  Gratitude, Reflection...

Firstly I do want to give my Eid greeetings to my Muslim customers and readers - Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri!  

For the past month life in Malaysia has been dominated by the month of Ramadan. I really do envy devout Muslims who can use this opportunity to stop, take stock and renew themselves. I felt I needed to take inspiration from what was going on around me and see how I could apply it to The Penang Bookshelf.

The easy part of bookselling is the excess of buying sprees. After my indulgences in the UK followed by another buying spree on my return, I decided that it was time to practice a bit of abstinence myself. So the month of Ramadan saw a virtual halt to book buying except to fulfill special orders from customers.

What on earth would I do with myself instead?   
Spend more time putting my own house in order, of course! This took the form of firstly
adding more books to my websites than ever before. At last I can now claim to have 30% of my stock online.  

Help! I then started selling more books on line too. Oh I see. That's how it's meant to work. Anyway despite the hassles of losing more and more stock, I did manage another achievement - I actually was able to increase my catalogue to  more than a thousand books! Nothing short of miraculous as I wasn't buying any books. No, instead I was trying to convert the unpriced books that litter my home and the shop into something saleable, i.e letting you know they exist.  

Neither what's on my websites nor in my full catalogue online actually represent all the books I have for sale. At any given time there may be upwards of 300 more books waiting to see the light of day. They'll make it some day.  

Scrummy Books

Of course one of the side effects of abstinence is craving for what you're missing. For me that came this month in finding myself becoming more attached to some of the books I handle.

Do you ever come across a book that you feel you just want to gobble up and swallow whole? It just looks and feels and, sometimes, even smells so delicious. This occurred to me during the month when I opened a parcel containing copies of The Legacy of the Malay Letter/Warisan Warkah Melayu.Malay Letter
I'll have to admit it; I did drool.  

Then it happened again I first fondled copies of Phoenix Rising: Narratives in Nyonya Beadwork From The Straits Settlements. 
Phoenix Rising 

What is it about these books? What do these books evoke in me? That's the key word; the book has to evoke something. I've noticed that very often the book has something to do with the past. I can begin to identify the triggers.There's colour: it mustn't be too garish, but leave something for my imagination to fill in. Weight: light books seldom attract, but the text must usually be weighty too, written by a scholar.

Then last week another parcel arrived - a daily occurrence in our long suffering household, I'm afraid.  The two books Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking and Reclaiming Adat: Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature made me drool again. Soft  
Reclaim colours and weighty subjects, but not weighty otherwise. Of course I'm talking about impulse buying in which I can indulge in this business. I'm also grabbed by titles too, but that's taking this topic further than you'd wish.

If you really want to know my prejudices, I would have to give the top award for cover design and content to the National University of Singapore Press. I hope you'll appreciate what I mean when you look at  this selection which I ordered a few weeks ago.

A Time for Gratitude Too

The other main religious festival that's gripped Penang this month has been The Hungry Ghost Festival when many Chinese believe the souls of their departed loved ones return to earth to be remembered, enteratined, fed and brought up to date with the family gossip. In other words, you're grateful for the help your ancestors gave you in giving you a nurturing start in life.

For me this was brought home this month when I remembered with gratitude how my parents dragged me away from Ireland to Asia at the age of three and what they taught me after that. The main thing I learned, I think, was to keep my horizons broad, accept whatever's going on around you and to remember the adventure of life never needs to stop unless you want it to. The other thing I learned is how interconnected we all are and can be. 

This was brought home to me this month by a lovely hour I had in the shop with an apparent stranger in his 70s who wandered in just after I had opened up. He knew the people whose names and faces I can remember wandering in and out of my life as a child in Singapore and I knew one of his teachers when he was briefly at school in Sri Lanka. Also this month had I the bonus of speaking to a Trengganu customer with whom I've engaged in correspondence on a wide range of subjects for the last nine months, but never spoken to. I also had a call from an Australian novelist customer with whom I've been in similar correspondence for almost as long.

That's really the life blood of this business for me - the people and connections. However it's particularly important not to keep the connections to myself, but to connect the connections, so to speak. That started happening this month too.

The Penang Bookshelf is not the Only Book on the Shelf

I was also reminded this month that I have 'competition' but of the friendly sort. One one of my two trips to Kuala Lumpur this month, I visited what's meant to be the second-hand booklover's heaven in the city - Ampcorp Mall at a weekend. Prowling around like me I bumped into John Nicholson, who runs Popular Picture History Resources. Neither of us had found anything particularly exciting - or nothing that we were admitting to:). I believe he came to Malaysia with the Oxford University Press many years ago and has been building up a fantastic collection since then. He mainly sells his books, maps, etc  at exhibitions, but does have a website of which I have given the link above.

Also I decided that for this month's feature about a publisher or writer I would interview another 'competitor', Claudine Sequerah of Nutmeg Publishing. As you'll see from my  interview Nutmeg not only specilises in publishing, but in book distribution and the sale of 'Malaysiana', in the form of second-hand books as well. Their speciality is heritage books. They had a soar away bestseller with their History of the Dutch in Malaysia which is going through a second reprint at the moment. The author, Dennis De Witt's follow up book Melaka From The Top, published by Nutmeg, is part of new stock that I have just added to my site   

Publicity - Love It and Loathe It

Part of the fun, but also part of the grind of this business, especially at this early stage, is dreaming up more ways to get oneself noticed. Sometimes they fall into one's lap as when a journalist from Malaysia's The Star newspaper kindly offered to interview me just after I wrote the last Newsletter. Her handiworkl is yet to appear in print, but probably will do so before I next write.

Also I was lucky this month in being offered the opportunity by the kind landlady of the shop which we share to have some bags printed with a bit of advertising blurb for the Penang Bookshelf Bag 
The picture's not as great as the bag itself which is of canvas light enough to fold away in a handbag and strong enough to fill to the brim with books! It also has long enough handles to slip over your shoulder before the weight of the books you're carrying disables your wrist. 

If I remember, I give them away to customers who spend over RM100, but I'd be more than happy to send you one for being kind enough to read this far. Just email me and I'll pop one in the post.

Happy Birthday Pillayar! 

My excuse for sending out my August Newsletter on the first day of the following month is that according to a taxi driver in Kulal Lumpur yesterday, today's Pillayar's (often known as Ganesh or Ganesa) birthday. It seems that none of Penang's communities are missing out on religious festivities at this time.

Amongst other things Pillayar is revered as the Remover of Obstacles, so I'll give special thanks to him for removing the miriad obstacles that allowed me to finally get to the end of this letter.

If you've managed it, thanks for reading this far.

With my best wishes,

William Knox
The Penang Bookshelf 


The Continuing Saga
The Beauty of
Yixing Teapots
The Finer Art of  
Tea Drinking 
Lessons from a  
Penang Connoisseur 

Yixing Teapots 

Last month's mystery about the popularity of this book began to unravel a bit. Firstly, the Star journalist who interviewed me said that "tea blogs" were chattering away like mad about Yixing Teapots at the moment. Then one of last month's purchasers told me that a collection of these teapots had sold recently in London for  £1,000,000 - and she knew the lucky seller!

Anyway it's been just about the most popular book this month with orders of one to go to Ireland and four to Thailand. 

If you're interested in a copy, do contact me as I still have copies, for now, at this price.
                Book Price Including Shipping

This Month's  Top Selling Categories
(In order of sales) 

The selection of books sold in this category was wide and mostly second hand but new arrival To'Janggut (Old Long beard)To'Janggut (Old Long beard)made an appearance. 

I forsee that one of the problems with increasing my online stock is that since there will be more books to view, books will be more difficult to find. With this in mind I am beginning to refine categories to be more specific.This category is a new one. Previously books in this category would have been hanging around in the Pre-Independence History Category above.  Probably the best selling book in this category was Heritage Houses of Penang Heritage Houses of Penang 

This category is always dominated bPenang Sketchbook and it was again. Strangely enough one of the purchasers of this book was a member of staff of one of the major chain bookshops in Penang. They had apparently decided to stop stocking it. The other book in this category that's selling well is Drawings by Khor Seow Hooi .Drawings The artist is a Penang resident and often seen on the streets of Penang with his sletchbook.I haven't noticed the book in any other bookstores yet.  

Like the Pre-independence category, this one is usually somewhere around the top which always pleases me. People  often assume that if I'm a specialist bookseller in Malaysian and Asian books, fiction doesn't feature. In fact the opposite is true. Maybe not on my internet shelves, but on my real shelves, this is the largest section. I'm much more discriminating about what I choose to sell amongst non-fiction books, than I am about fiction where I grab anything I can see in the hope of promoting new fiction.That said, this month's sales were dominated by old favourites such as Tash Aw's Harmony Silk Factory Harmony Silk FactoryHowever I have been assembling a collection of less well known Malaysian fiction which I intend to feature next month alongside an interview with one of Malaysia's major writers of  fiction in English.

For historic, political and eduactional reasons there is much more English language fiction being written in Singapore than in Malaysia. So I'm glad that I have been able to establish links with some Singaporean fiction publishers such as Marshall-Cavendish, Monsoon Books and even Editions Didier Miller (EDM), although EDM mostly publishes non-fcition. The front runners in this category this month were books from the Straits Quartet by Dawn Farnham.Red ThreadI have the first of the quartet, The Red Thread up online and the third, The Hills of Singapore but not the second, The Shallow Seas, which as an ideal illustration of the random way in which I put my books up on line! I do have the Shallow Seas in stock and hope to get it up online shortly.  The fourth one of the quartet is not yet published and presumably in mid scribble.  




Customers' Wish List

As you may know, I not only supply books from my stock, but also can help find books for you too. I charge 15% of the cost to me of obtaining the book, with a minimum charge of RM15 and a maximum of RM55 per book. Most of the time I'm successful, but some of the time I'm not. So I thought it might not be a bad idea to publicise what some of my customers are looking for. In some cases they're looking for specific titles, in other cases books about a particular subject.

If you have anything in the list below and want to part with it, do contact me and I'll see if the searcher is interested. I would charge the searcher a handling fee based on the rates outlined in the previous paragraph.

Of course this could be a marvellous excuse for you to set off for a browse in your neighbourhood bookshop and earn some money for yourself. Anyway, whichever way suits you best, I'd be grateful for your help.  

The List

Bandits by Ewe Paik Leong  
Federated Museums Journal  Vol 21 (1976)  
Green is the Colour by Lloyd Fernando (original edition) 
Hikayat Abdullah (Original Malay Version, not the English translation)   
Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol 12, No 3 October 1934
The same - Vol 24 Pt 1 May 1951 
The same - Vol 27, Pt 1 May 1954
Malaya This, Our Native Land by Johnny Ong 
 Pending Permata by Shamus Frazer
Run, Tiger, Run by Johnny Ong   

Finally, I have a customer who is writing a novel set in the Portuguese Eurasian community in Penang in the 1970s/80s. She was wondering if anyone had any memoirs, novels or other literature about the community at this time.

If you have any wants/wishes that you would like added to this list, do let me know    

A Chance to Meet 

I know I probably won't have a chance to meet most of you but if any of you or any booklovers you know are in Penang in September, I am planning to be at the following places -

10th September

"Welcome to Penang" - to introduce new and existing residents to Penang buisnesses they may find useful  
At The G Hotel, Gurney Drive, Penang  10am to 3pm

25th September

Little Penang Street Market  where the Penang Bookshelf began life in May 2010 and which I still regularly attend when I'm in Penang.  
10am to 4pm in Upper Penang Road opposite the front entrance to the E&O Hotel.  

I'm also at the shop at 80 Armenian Street on most days, usually in the afternoons. However my hours are erattic and it's always best to call me on 012-972-6485 to make sure I'll be there when you want to see me. 

About The Penang Bookshelf
The Penang Bookshelf specialises in providing book lovers with a broad range of new and second-hand books, both fiction and non-fiction, primarily about Malaysia, but also about other parts of Asia as well.


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Telephone: +60-12-972-6485

Shop Address: 80, Armenian Street, Penang, Malaysia. (Not full-time, so please telephone to make an appointment.)

Mailing address: 36, Cheeseman Road, 11600 Penang, Malaysia

Registered Business No: PG0282219-D

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