After her graduation in 2013, Syarafina Halim, like many fresh graduates, was unsure of her career path.
I had simply assumed that I would look for employment after graduation – maybe work in an office somewhere, probably in admin or something similar. It had definitely never crossed my mind that I would end up striking out on my own.
But life had other plans for her.
In between applications and interviews, she helped her father, who was working at her family bookstore after his retirement, to implement a Point of Sale system – starting with her compiling the massive inventory of book titles.
Located on the first floor of Joo Chiat Complex in Geylang, the Haji Hashim bookstore, established in 1922 and opened by her great-grandfather, has long been a place where members of the Singapore Malay-Muslim community got their books and cultural and religious items.
But there was a problem – the store wasn’t convenient for all their regular and potential customers to get to, and sieving through the stacks of books is a rather daunting task for many.
“My dad always told me about customers who came into the store and asked if we had a website they could browse, or if we offered a delivery service to people’s homes.”
Thus, in spite of holding on to full-time job in 2014, Syarafina quickly realised that she could potentially “bring it to the next level” by going down the e-commerce route.
“I knew that people’s shopping habits were changing, such that they were likely to look up anything they want, including books, online first before they decide to purchase it.”
Unfortunately, her family decided not to go on with the plans in the end.
Syarafina, however, refused to give up on the idea.
“By then, the fire to create an e-commerce bookstore had already been ignited in me. I had already researched on different e-commerce hosts and the costs, and it seemed quite achievable.”
“I had my family’s support, and I’ve always loved books anyway, so I thought, “If there was ever the right time for me to take a leap of faith and start an online store, it would be right now!””
‘The Buku Bookstore’
But an idea would only remain as such if not acted on, and Syarafina knew that there was a lot of work that needed to be done to get a site up-and-running.
First off the list was to secure a supply of books to make ready on the website.
“I knew of a different e-commerce store that had a deal with the family bookstore, wherein customers would order through their website first, and then they would buy from the family bookstore the books that were ordered. Since I already have an established relationship with the family bookstore, it made sense for me to strike up a similar deal.”
Next, she needed an e-commerce host for her website, and given the extensive research that she had done, the choice came pretty easily.
“Since I was such a newbie, I decided to devote a couple of weeks to sign up for free trials with a few sites, which allowed me to experience the available features and help me make my decision.”
Then came the part which could potentially make or break the brand – the naming of the store.
“I had so many choices that ranged from bad puns, to common phrases, to different variations of my name.”
But in the end, it was ‘The Buku Bookstore’ that stuck with her.
“Firstly, the books I feature are a mix of English and Malay, so I wanted something that referenced both languages. The word “book” in Malay is “buku”, and having both words in the name The Buku Bookstore allows me to reflect the kind of books on offer.”
“Secondly, I wanted a name that was simple, and easy to remember and pronounce. I liked The Buku Bookstore because when it’s said aloud, I think the alliteration makes it sound catchy, and thus easy to remember. Also, I think it sounds cute!”
Creating The Website From Scratch
Browsing through other e-commerce sites for inspiration, she found that she particularly favoured those that “did not have too much going on” on the home page – and that was how she decided to move forward with its design.
“I wanted the message of the e-commerce site to be clear: its a bookstore, and it has books, and it’s an inviting space.”
However, building up a website from scratch isn’t a feat many can accomplish by themselves, and Syarafina overcame it by “looking for a convenient and idiot-proof e-commerce host”, and asking her sister, whom she referred to as her design consultant, for help on the aesthetics.
But while the technical bits weren’t as straight-forward, Syarafina was clear on the colour palette she wanted.
“I wanted something that was easy to navigate while still being aesthetically pleasing, which is why I made the background white. I also wanted to pick one signature colour for the logo and for the theme of the website – I picked a deep brown-maroon colour because I’ve always felt like the medium of books is something associated with richness, earthiness, and history, a bit like leather and mahogany.”
And soon, The Buku Bookstore webstore was born.
But being so hands-on in a project can sometimes make you blindsided to possible flaws, so she made sure to ask around for advice:
“Having an actual product that I could look at and show to others was definitely the first truly satisfying thing about this process, especially when I received mostly encouraging responses regarding the look and feel of the page. Of course there are things that I hope to improve in the future, but I think we’re off to a great start.”
“I’m Still A Tadpole In A Huge Pond”
At a few months old, the bookstore is still young, but Syarafina already has plans to expand the range and depth of books she has on offer – especially so for Malay novels, which have seen a boost in popularity due to hit Malay TV drama serials which have been adapted from them.
Growth-wise, she also expresses hopes of catering to schools and madrasahs (Islamic schools):
“It’d be great if [The Buku Bookstore] could one day act as an avenue through which schools, teachers or students can order books – whether for classes or for purely leisurely pursuits.”
Given that e-commerce stores aplenty, Syarafina reveals that for now, she plans to capitalise on social media and has been avoiding the Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day peak period, where many brands spend more money on advertising their products.
“I’m still a little tadpole in a huge pond, with little resources, so I’ve had to be careful with where I spend the money that I have. In the future, I’d hope that I’ll have a little more financial leeway to spend on advertising and expand my reach to more potential customers.”
Advice To Aspiring Store Owners – Plan Well Before You Start
Still a relatively new entrepreneur, Syarafina has sound advice for those seeking to set out on their own:
“I would advice that they plan well before they start. If they do it like me and play by ear as they go along, the journey will take a longer, more meandering route -which is definitely not for the impatient. Also, if they plan on doing it as a solo act, they have to be prepared to perform a variety of different job roles, which traditionally would have been performed by different people in a regular company.”
And finally, the support of the people around is so important and helpful, so don’t be afraid to seek other people’s advice.
Syarafina Halim is breathing life into her family’s history-rich bookstore with her knowhow in e-commerce, and we honestly can’t wait to see other millennials doing the same for other prolific businesses in Singapore as well.
Visit The Buku Bookstore here.