Silverfish has become the place to go for Malaysian titles of all kinds (photo credit: Carolyn Hong)
As mega bookstores begin to vanish from Malaysian malls, its best-known independent bookstore does just the opposite. In June, Silverfish moved from its street shopfront into the swish Bangsar Village mall.
This seemed a counter-intuitive move but Silverfish’s owner Raman Krishnan does things his own way.
And his way has proven to be an astute reading of the book business and of his Malaysian customers. Yes, most of its customers are Malaysians, debunking the myth that Malaysians don’t read.
Silverfish is now 16 years old, and has become one of Malaysia’s most beloved, if somewhat eccentric, bookstore.
It’s a place to go to find interesting books, and to have intelligent conversation if you feel like it. Its staff (or Raman himself) can talk about their books and more, and are just as interested in finding out what their customers are reading.
As Silverfish has shown, bookstores don’t have to dumb down or sell stationery to survive. They just need to know what their customers want, and to focus on providing it.
Some may call its collection ‘serious books’ but to Raman, they are simply books that will leave you a little more intelligent after you have finished reading them.
“We rather deal with books that make you intelligent,” he said.
But it didn’t start out easy. For almost a decade, Silverfish almost did not survive the mega bookstores which sold books at a heavily discounted price. With dramatic flourish, Raman described those years as ‘nuclear warfare’, and pillage and plunder.
It was only through hard work and the custom of its loyal base that Silverfish stayed alive, barely.
But it was also in those difficult times that Silverfish found its calling. To differentiate it from the giants, Raman made the decision to focus on Malaysian books of all types, even ones as obscure as the history of Batu Gajah.
“I differentiated myself by focusing on Malaysian books that they (the mega bookstores) were not doing, and by publishing our own books,” he said.
Silverfish has now published around 60 titles, bringing some of the freshest Malaysian talent to light.
It swiftly became known as the place to go to for Malaysian titles, and this helped it survive as the mega bookstores went bust. For a while, it still had to contend with remaindered books being sold cheaply by discount stores but now, Silverfish can be described as solidly on its feet.
“The air smells a bit fresher now,” said Raman (pic).
Those were tough times but they helped Silverfish become more than just a bookstore although its main business is still books, of course. In searching for its niche, it also became a place for conversation and serendipitous encounters, and to become a bit more intelligent.
Having also become a host of quirkily interesting events, this August and September, the Silverfish Festival of Cabbages (so-named because the brain resembles cabbages!) features an eclectic line-up of talks which may or may not have anything to do with books.
It is about “anything that makes you intelligent”.
Speakers include musician Saidah Rastam who spoke about the origins of the Malaysian national anthem, and writer Isa Kamari who will talk about the writing scene in Singapore.
Having carved a comfortable niche for itself, Silverfish is now moving into a new phase of life by moving into a mall, a move that is both a testament to its resilience as well as a test of it.
Raman acknowledges that a mall can be impersonal.
“In a shophouse, it’s rarely so, you get the feeling that you are dealing with people in there,” he said.
But he added: “Most people say I’ve not lost the indie spirit in here.”
In fact, he was just told that Silverfish “looked very Malaysian” in a very Western mall, thanks to its character and personality.
It has avoided blandness through touches like warm lighting and cosy décor, but most of all, through its staff who are knowledgeable and happy to chat. Its personality has stayed intact.
Raman said Silverfish’s success may appear to have come overnight but it had actually taken 16 years of hard work. As well as an astute understanding of Malaysians and the book trade.
For now, this will be the only Silverfish although many malls have clamoured for a branch too.
“If it’s to be a cookie-cutter bookstore, I can. But I won’t. Unless I am completely satisfied that it will work, I’m not going to,” he said.