I’ve only ever met Denise from Singapore’s Closetful of Books online, but I just know we could spend many happy hours together drinking tea and chatting about books. My interview with Denise Tan is my first in a series of interviews with indie booksellers. I think lots of book lovers secretly want to own bookstores, so here’s a peek behind the scenes to help you with those dreams!

NLK: Can you please tell us a little about Closetful of Books and you?

DT: Closetful of Books is a roaming bookstore that visits schools for book fairs. We focus on kidlit and curate a selection of books that aim to build literacy through reading for pleasure. 

I run Closetful of Books with my partner, Kelvin Ng. Kelvin and I met when we were 13 and this was not at all a path we planned for ourselves. Kelvin was meant to be an engineer and I, a political journalist. 

But while I was in school, I worked part-time in a little bookstore that specialised in picture books and a whole amazing world presented itself. After my tertiary education, I begged for a job with Bookaburra Books, a children’s books specialist where I got to work closely with kids and educators and was shown how great stories can make readers of us all. 

That was when I knew this was what I was meant to do. (And I don’t have many skills so I possibly cannot do anything else.)

NLK: What made you open a bookstore?

DT: Bookaburra Books was closing and Kelvin and I felt that we needed to continue the good work that Bookaburra was doing. 

Also, see previous sentiment about me not having many other skills.

NLK: What’s the best thing about owning a bookstore?

DT: The best thing about owning an indie bookstore that doesn’t have a physical front is that we get to truly curate our selection. We also have the liberty of not stocking great heaps of mass market titles. This means we know and love every title we carry. 

We also get to know and love every customer that we have and we get to grow with the readers. 

NLK: What’s the hardest thing about owning a bookstore?

DT: There are many days when I’d like nothing more than to sit on a sofa with a cup of tea and a book or five. And often, a bookseller is privy to lots of great new books that I, of course, would like to devour immediately but there’s stock to sort, book fairs to set up, administrative work to be done. 

Managing costs and overheads is another painful thing. Sometimes I resent that this intrudes upon my Elysian setup but if I’m being honest, planning and strategising gives me a thrill too.

NLK: What specific challenges are you facing in relation to the pandemic situation?

DT: With schools having tight restrictions on visitors, we have not been able to visit with our book fairs for nearly a year. This does mean that a significant portion of our income is non-existent at the moment. In addition to that, this pseudo-downtime has reminded me that I love and need the chatter with the kiddos we meet at the fairs. I miss that so much and my days are dreary without them. 

NLK: What are your favourite type of books to sell and why?

DT: I do a little inside-dance when a reader devours a book that is a just-right recommendation. When the book tickles the child’s fancy and sticks and the child returns on the next visit asking for more – those are my favourite types of books to put in a reader’s hands. 

NLK: Why do you think people should buy books?

DT: If one is able to afford books and has the space to store them, then why not? 

When a child owns a book, it is a piece of the child’s growth captured on a bookshelf. It gives ownership, validation and love. 

I do think that every child must be given access to books because stories are doors, windows, mirrors, stepping stones, building blocks. Books are powerful beyond their literacy value and they offer possibility and pleasure. We cannot deny our children this. 

This question might also touch on why one should pay good money for books. Creators put lots of heart and energy into making a story that is worth devouring and while a reader’s delight is invaluable, there is rent and sustenance to consider. 

NLK: Can you please tell us more about your school outreach initiatives?

DT: Closetful of Books organises author and illustrator visits to schools in Singapore and the region. We do this with our pool of super talented locally-located creators and with visiting international authors and illustrators. It’s one of the most fun things to do! I’ll also visit schools to give book talks to students and teachers. 

These initiatives aim to build a community of readers who will talk incessantly about stories. 

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