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Remember the days when bookstores were a haven for book lovers, a place to get lost among shelves stacked high with literary treasures? 

In Malaysia, this scene has seen significant changes over the years. But fear not, the story of Malaysian bookstores is far from over—instead, it’s one of resilience, reinvention, and a love for the written word that refuses to die.

Growing up, I believe MPH bookstore and Popular bookstore were the go-to spots for new releases, school textbooks, and the occasional notebook splurge. 

These stores were more than just places to buy books—they were community hubs where book signings, readings, and literary discussions brought people together.

In recent years, though, a new wave of independent and international bookstores began to emerge, bringing fresh ideas and unique experiences to the Malaysian book scene. Namely, the bookstore-cafe hybrid. 

Stores like Eslite, Kinokuniya, and Tsutaya have seamlessly integrated coffee and books, creating cosy spaces where you can enjoy a good read with a great cup of coffee.

This blend of caffeine and literature has proven to be a winning combination, attracting a steady stream of customers looking for a relaxed environment to unwind nowadays.

Bringing back the classic bookstore experience

Image Credit: Vulcan Post

However, with the opening of MPH’s flagship store at The Exchange TRX, the bookstore is signalling a renaissance, refocusing on enhancing and expanding its physical presence. 

This store serves as the centerpiece of MPH’s revitalised mission to bring families and communities together through the joy of reading, offering versatile event spaces for book launches, author meet-and-greets, and workshops.

“We decided to call it a “knowledge hub,” offering workshops and masterclasses, which is the true essence of what we aim to provide,” MPH’s new chief executive officer Martin Cross told Vulcan Post.

This mission is led by Martin, along with a new management team that joined in January this year. Together, they’re steering this iconic Malaysian brand into a new era.

Martin shared with us that when the new management team took over, they had already set some decisions in stone, such as the absence of a cafe.

“There are nearby coffee shops here. So we felt there wasn’t really too much of a loss to our customers. They can just buy what they want to eat there.”

“It’s not as easy as it seems to manage a cafe within a bookstore. We would rather fill the space with interesting things rather than people just coming to kill time,” he explained.

Image Credit: Vulcan Post

He said the focus remains on creating a space that book lovers can truly appreciate—a bright, easy-to-navigate store where one can lose oneself in the world of books without actually getting lost.

New entrants shaking things up

The Malaysian appetite for bookstores is a fascinating phenomenon. 

Despite the closures of giants like Times and Borders, and MPH’s own downsizing, new entrants like Eslite from Taiwan and Tsutaya from Japan are making their mark. Early this year, MPH announced the closure of multiple outlets, including its first Megastore opened in 1999. 

These bookstore chains, with their lifestyle-focused offerings, seem to draw in crowds with their experiential concepts. 

“So you have that kind of trajectory. But then at the same time you have new entrants coming. But those seem to be doing more kind of like an experiential concept as well because that’s what Malaysians seem to want, going to a bookstore,” said Martin.

We’ve visited these stores ourselves and can confirm that while Eslite and Tsutaya do nurture readers, their lifestyle appeal is undeniable. 

This experiential approach might be the future for bookstores, but Martin believes in a balance. 

“The market for book reading is pretty stable; we just have to do it right. We are certainly doing the concept right. We’ll see whether the location is right in the coming weeks and months.”

Unlike Tsutaya, which Martin pointed out often links its stores to developments, MPH focuses on functionality and intentionality in its design. 

“Our shelves are intentionally kept low enough to reach without ladders. It’s practical for both customers and employees and prevents books from getting dusty,” Martin explained. 

This attention to detail underscores the fact that MPH TRX is designed by book lovers, for book lovers.

The vision ahead

Interestingly, MPH TRX won’t be retrofitting existing stores to match this new concept. Each location will be tailored to its specific environment instead. 

As the exclusive bookstore in TRX, MPH commits to creating a complete reading environment.

“There’s only Kinokuniya here but even that one is only selling stationeries,” said Martin. 

Martin emphasised that they are closely monitoring MPH TRX’s performance and will tailor the store’s offerings to the market. “We need to learn who will come to this store first,” he said, referring the demographics of customers.

Currently, MPH operates 10 outlets across Malaysia, primarily in the Klang Valley, with stores in Kedah and Kuching as well. They also have plans to open another outlet this year.

“Some other chains have more stores, but one of our main competitors, despite having many more locations, focuses much less on books than we do. We are primarily a bookstore, where you can find almost any book you want, and we likely have a lower percentage of non-book items.”

“Another competitor offers a similar range of books but operates only one store. So, we strike a balance between being widely accessible and maintaining a strong focus on books,” he added.

The landscape of bookstores in Malaysia has certainly changed, but the essence remains the same. It’s still about the love of books, the joy of discovery, and the sense of community. 

So, if you ever find yourself passing by MPH at The Exchange TRX, pop in and see for yourself how it’s making stories come to life.

  • Learn more about MPH bookstore here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post

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© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)

Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)