Walking into Dokusho Bookstore, I was immediately greeted by the comforting smell of old books. The space was covered by rows upon rows of used books, taller than my 160cm self. As a self-proclaimed bookworm, I instantly knew I was going to spend hours simply browsing through the selections.
The topics of books ranged from poetry and philosophy to romance and thrillers. When I was done picking out a few titles, I made myself comfortable in the back of the bookstore where open tables await.
On the table were complimentary packets of drinks including chrysanthemum tea and soya milk. I was stunned by the hospitality. At first, I thought the drinks were a temporary thing to commemorate the store’s launch. But when I asked the store about it, I realised I was wrong.
The story begins
While Ooi Jian Sheng and Sin Yi Wen were studying in the UK, they became fond of local and independent second-hand bookstores. However, when they returned to Malaysia, they noticed there weren’t many such bookstores available locally.
“There was a sense of longing for the joys of popping by the local bookstore and grabbing a book to read over a cuppa tea during the weekend,” Jian Sheng expressed.
After two years of waiting for a second-hand bookstore to open near them, Jian Sheng and Yi Wen decided to take matters into their own hands. The two used their savings as capital to open the bookstore, sourcing the first batch of books from various suppliers.
“Due to funding constraints, we thought it would be prudent to start off as an online business first, with the aim of opening a brick-and-mortar store in the future,” Jian Sheng said.
And here they are, five years later, with a physical store facing Old Klang Road.
Due to limited funding, the co-founders opted for an office lot location rather than a commercial space. While this means the overhead costs are lower, the downside is that foot traffic and exposure are lessened too.
Currently, the bookstore only opens on the weekends as the partners hopes to grow the customer base first before opening on more days.
Furthermore, the two also have other work commitments, though they hope that the bookstore gets to a point where they might be able to pursue it full-time.
The issue with free drinks
When asked about the free drinks, Jian Sheng revealed that there was actually a lengthy discussion on the topic.
“The first question we asked ourselves was whether we were a bookstore in a café or a bookstore with a café,” Jian Sheng recalled. “To both of us, we were without a doubt the latter, where being a bookstore was our core identity.”
The couple wanted customers to focus on the books from the moment they walk in until they leave the premises. They didn’t want to break that focus by making customers fork out money just to get a drink.
So, they decided to experiment with providing free beverages in the store.
“In my personal experience, if I were browsing in a bookstore while thirsty or hungry, I will tend to quickly skim through the books before heading off to get something to eat or drink,” Jian Sheng shared. “Once I am out of the store, most likely than not, I will not return to the store until next time.”
However, as a used bookstore that prices its books at RM7.90 or less, providing free beverages is risky, if not unsustainable.
“Once we deduct the cost of the rental, utilities, and website services, providing free drinks would further burden us with higher overheads,” Jian Sheng admits.
But the co-founders hope the goodwill can help build relationships that will turn into a net positive cash flow. Thus, for now, Dokusho Bookstore will continue to provide free beverages, unless it no longer makes sense financially.
Aside from the free drinks, the bookstore also distributes books to children free of charge with its Children’s Book Bank.
“We have always been guided by a philosophy of a social enterprise,” Jian Sheng explains. “We want to be more than just a bookstore, so to speak.”
The next chapter
Down the road, the co-founders hope to move to a larger, more accessible, and strategic store location. They hope to dedicate a larger space to encourage children’s literacy as well as make the store wheelchair friendly.
On top of that, they also hope to have space for a community learning centre where adults and senior citizens can attend free learning programmes for essential life skills as well as life enrichment activities.
Essentially, they want to build not just a better bookstore, but a vibrant and holistic community.
“It won’t be easy, but it’s better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all,” Jian Sheng said. “If we were to succeed, the benefits to society in general would outweigh the cost of us failing this endeavour.”
So, it turns out, the free drinks aren’t just for show. Instead, they’re just the first step in this business’s journey to foster a positive culture. Plus, the goodwill did end up swaying me to purchase a couple of books during my previous (but likely not last) visit.
- Learn more about Dokusho Bookstore here.
- Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: Ooi Jian Sheng and Sin Yi Wen, co-founders of Dokusho Bookstore