The Bookstores of Bugis

Last weekend, a friend and I went on a bookstore-exploring adventure in the Bugis area of Singapore. There aren’t a lot of independent bookstores on the island, but it’s surprising what you can find once you start poking into nooks and crannies. Here are the six that ended up on our itinerary (in the order in which we visited them):

Basheer Graphic Books

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The name of this bookstore led me to expect a comic book shop. And the location on the fourth floor of the entirely nondescript Bras Basah Complex didn’t inspire high hopes for the place. But we discovered a wonderful store that’s stacked floor-to-ceiling with books focused on and loosely related to the wide world of design.

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You’ll find books here with titles like “Tiny Homes, Maximum Style,” “U R Invited,” and “Food Space.” It’s a delightful place, filled to the brim with everything from guides to drawing faeries to specs for meeting international green roofing standards.

Knowledge Book Store

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Just one story down sits this unassuming book seller, The Knowledge Book Centre. It follows a model that we found in several Bras Basah bookstores: one quarter exam-study center, three-quarters used bookstore. Exam studying is big business in Singapore, and this shop offers all sorts of study sheets and textbooks. As used bookstores go, this one was fine — plenty of books, but better for finding amusing titles (like “Cooking for Cher,” written by her personal chef) than for rummaging through a carefully curated selection of used items.

Modern Book Store

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The words “book store” seem to have a wide range of meaning in Singapore. The only books we found at Modern Book Store, a small storefront on the first floor of the Bras Basah Complex, were blank ones — this was really a school supply shop.

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We ran across multiple “book store” outlets that sold more ping pong paddles than actual books, so we had to readjust our expectations as we walked around.

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City Book Room

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A single elegant room, the City Book Room was by far the loveliest space we visited.
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Sitting on the third floor of the otherwise empty-feeling North Bridge Centre, just across the street from Singapore’s central library, the City Book Room focuses on local literature. That means that much of the material for sale — well over 80% of it — is in Chinese. We browsed the small English-language section and learned about Singapore writers from the very helpful saleswoman (if we’d been handing out awards, this bookstore would have won for both aesthetics and for service). This is the kind of place that really makes you want to curl up with a good book and while away the afternoon.

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Books Kinokuniya

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At this point, we where we hopped off of the independent bookstore search and landed ourselves in the middle of a Japanese retail giant. Books Kinokuniya has several outposts in Singapore; we visited the small-ish version on the third floor of Bugis Junction. If you squint, you might as well be at a Barnes & Noble in Anywhere, USA:

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But what Books Kinokuniya lacks in personality, it makes up for in size — for English-language readers, this is the best place on the island if you want to browse lots and lots of titles. And they have an entire section for manga devotees, and another — shelves and shelves worth — that’s devoted to what I’ll call “Japanese boxes that look like books but that actually have bags inside.” I don’t know why this is a thing, but I was tempted to buy this tiny cat-in-a-“book”:

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Looksee Looksee

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Sadly, this “reading room and tea salon” at the edge of Kampong Glam was closed when we tried to visit — which is a shame, because we loved the notion of a public reading space, and it looked unlike any bookstore either of us had ever seen:

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