THERE WAS A TIME when KL looked and felt like a town of booksellers. There were book vendors everywhere, especially on the five-foot way of those colonnaded walks in front of shops. You could walk – as I did almost daily, after school – from Baden Powell House in Jalan Davidson at the foot of the hill, down Jalan Sultan and then along Foch Avenue and beyond and meet at least five booksellers, many in shops but some outside of shops.
Kuala Lumpur, 1884. Not many bookshops here.
I am not sure if I should count the Sun U on
Avenue (Lebuhraya Foch) as a bookshop though as
they were actually stationers but when I looked, I saw books in there too,
perhaps textbooks for Chinese schools. I always walked past Sun U hurriedly as
people were always milling about in front of the shop, seldom stationary. They
were punters for buses that came one after another, to Sungai Besi to Kampung
Pandan to Petaling Jaya. Crossing Foch Avenue was a chore and a half and it was
always a relief when you reached that road that led to Naina Mohamad, the
pharmacist, in the corner, in that whole new world of Market Square.
But before Naina was a row of shops, a gaggle of bookstores all meeting in a row. I remember one was called M M Ally and the rest, well, you don't really need to know as the books they stocked were mostly samey. Magazines hanging from pegs on a line as you enter, and on tables were more magazines, books and more books in cases in the back of the shop and on the side walls. They were mostly American paperbacks, local publications, school text and the daily newspaper. As you entered a shop, on the front left, you'd see a man sitting behind a till looking at you warily, reading you for sure, to see if you would be a potential shop lifter. Now, why would anyone go out and lift books from a bookshop? Then you'd have to read them and that's too much bother anyway.
My journey along the walkways would continue until I came to a corner – I can't remember now if it was Jalan Bandar – where two South Indian brothers stood before a wall of books and more on two revolving displays. This was where I'd stop to browse and chat with one or both of the brothers and ask if they had any Thurber. I got almost all my Thurbers from them though now I see that they have moved into the mainstream, opening as a 'proper' bookshop among the eateries and shirts and silk and carpet stores in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman with their stock in trade of prayer books, religious tracts, school textbooks and magazines galore.
Three more book stops would engage me before I hit lucky and manage to jump aboard the Len Seng Omnibus in Jalan Melaka unscathed and unmolested for the struggle to go home was stiff in those days. But we'll leave the yellow omnibus for now and go across the bridge to the building on the corner of Jalan Mountbatten/Jalan Melayu where, on the first floor of a banking house was the University Book Store. This was a proper bookshop to make all other bookshops look improper (well, save for one we shall go to later). There were shelves and shelves of books you could get lost in. (What I mean is you could hide behind those shelves; I have never got lost in a book, have you?) There was a proper gentleman in there too, I mean someone wearing old-fashioned baggy pants and a properly ironed shirt such as to prompt you to call him uncle.
Once, when I was hidden among the bookshelves, browsing things from the top and bottom of the myriad rows, out popped a little sniveling guy I used to know at school and we said hello and got into a long and loud conversation about Vietnam as the little sniveller had turned into a right Vietcong in his ways. In the heat of the conversation, and from the corner of one eye I saw Uncle coming around pretending to be checking the shelves and giving us furtive glances now and then in case we broke into fisticuffs and turn his bookshop into a post-harvest padi field. See what I mean about meeting some schoolfellows in a bookshop?
Across the road from the University Book Store was Universal, the book vendor mentioned by James Kirkup in Tropic Temper. It was at the entrance to the Masjid Jamek, with books on table-tops under a corrugated roofed old shed. There were books too behind glass-fronted cases gleaming under the fluorescent glow.
But we'll cross the road and walk again along Jalan Melaka to Jalan Ampang by the river flow, down below from the monumental AIA building on Bukit Nanas was a row of old fashioned shop-houses with names that commuters on the Len Seng omnibus rides will remember, Ong Yoke Lin, selling Carrier air-conditioners, and the head of the infamous Black Cat jutting out from above a shop-house that became famous in a scandal that woke the town one fine morning to headlines about assorted women who went to work in this joint with their clothes uncollected from the laundry.
All right, all right, we're digressing, it's a book shop we're looking for here, for there, between the sleaze and the air-conditioning was the City Book Store, another 'proper' bookshop. The City was in a strange place to be for a book store, away from the pedestrian flow and away from the centre of it all. But there you are, my dear, I went there looking for a book but the police came and bundled me away into the van with some semi-clad ladies of unknown provenance.
But we must go now. The Len Seng bus has just trundled past from the direction of Gombak, going back to the dust mill of Jalan Melaka and I must be going home.