The Accidental Bookseller in Penang

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The Penang Bookshelf’s owner, William Knox, wasn’t always a bookseller. He has been at various times a lawyer and a peace worker but always an iconoclast. Here he describes how he stumbled upon bookselling when he came to Penang because he couldn’t find the books that he wanted to read.

Nostalgia about Britain’s colonial past never featured much in my family. I suppose that was because our recent history was so bound up with that past being swept away. My father had had a nasty introduction to the East, as a prisoner of war after the fall of Singapore. However within five years of his release, he was back in Asia as a newspaper correspondent chronicling and analysing the changes that were in many ways prompted by the Japanese invasion of Malaya. He was on first name terms with Jawaharlal Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew. Kim Philby was a family friend.

Some of that tickling the status quo seems also to have rubbed off on me. I failed an exam for the first time when at 16, I was unable to convince my British examiners, still smarting from the trauma of Suez, that Gamal Abdul Nasser was the greatest man born since 1000 AD. Twenty years later I was a lawyer in Kenya advising my clients, amongst other things, about tribal inheritance law. Twenty years after that, I was floundering around as a peace worker trying to work with communities who wanted to bring about change in the midst of their battery and exploitation by both sides in the Sri Lankan civil war.

Curiosity, rather than a craving for adventure, seems to have led me by the nose through life. If what I run up against does not make much sense to me, why can’t it be done differently? The only ways I know of satisfying that curiosity are, prior to taking action, chatting with people and reading books. So when I arrived in Penang four years ago, I immediately went hunting for bookshops. I needed fiction and non-fiction books to challenge my assumptions as to how this country works. I was to be sorely disappointed. I could find books on birds of Europe easily, but had to struggle to find anything about birds in my garden a few minutes drive away from the bookstore.

When my frustration reached boiling point, I started an experiment of selling from a stall at The Little Penang Street market. I called it the Penang Bookshelf. At the market, on the last Sunday of each month, with live entertainment in the background, sellers offer anything from utter tat to the mildly exotic. However, my obsessive nature soon meant I had too many books to have in a stall, so The Penang Bookshelf went online. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I realised that unconsciously I was falling back on an old technique I’ve used both as a lawyer and as a peace worker. If I want to shake things up a bit, I study what is giving me angst and then experiment with doing exactly the opposite. For example when a peace worker, I was fed up with the general assumption that what worked in Northern Ireland or the Middle East would work in Sri Lanka, so I developed programmes based on the experience and capabilities of Sri Lankans instead.

In the Malaysian book selling business, I was frustrated by the narrow range of books offered. In the international online bookselling business, I was appalled by the lack of information about books being sold. There was an assumption that customers would only be buying books they were looking for in the first place. I knew from a lifelong experience of buying books that I usually went into bookshops to stumble across books I never even knew existed before I entered the shop.

About 30% of the books in print stocked by The Penang Bookshelf will not be found in any of the larger bookstores in Malaysia. The books are probably missing from their shelves because the stores have higher overheads and so need their books to move faster. Malaysian booksellers’ lives are not made much easier by the fact that the average Malaysian publisher does need a lesson or two in marketing. So it really is an effort finding that missing 30%. The effort pays off too. At least two, probably more, of the books in The Penang Bookshelf’s bestseller list at the moment are not stocked by major booksellers.


Because my original intention of going online was limited, i.e., to show visitors to the market stall what other books were available, I needed pictures and good descriptions, not only of the book’s contents, but also, in the case of used books, the book’s condition. I soon discovered that not many competitors were doing the same thing. Most books online do not have pictures and even fewer tell you what the book is about. Although adding the extra details is laborious, several customers have told me that they have often bought books on the basis of information provided by The Penang Bookshelf.

So three years of fun, toil, and a considerable amount of learning have produced an inventory on Malaysia which many collectors tell me is unmatched by that of any other bookseller. The collection’s main distinction is its comprehensive nature. Passion-killing Jawi sex manuals, an occasional tantalising cookbook, unheard of fiction and sets of tedious statistics are all here.

The books published in Malaysia come from publishers here. Years of browsing second hand bookshops all over the world have also taught me how to find gems that the store owners and their customers have long forgotten about. Increasingly as The Penang Bookshelf becomes better known, anticlutter fiends offer books they no longer want. Books published overseas mainly come from other booksellers. My wisest move so far was buying several hundred out of print Malay books from the 1960s and earlier that a US bookseller had no idea what to do with. It seemed to have sent out a message that this wasn’t just another expatriate dabbling in a hobby business.

To demonstrate my seriousness I have also become a member of The Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA), making The Penang Bookshelf, as far as I am aware, the only member of an international professional bookselling organisation in Malaysia or Singapore. I hope that membership is a re-assurance to customers of the standards and ethics that The Penang Bookshelf wants to maintain. It is also a great support to be connected to the wider world of bookselling. Fiddling about on the internet can be very lonely especially on the periphery of the bookselling world, in a flat in Penang. IOBA has not only increased my learning but has enabled me to link up with other booksellers overseas in my hunt for books on Malaysia.

However the biggest bonus from The Penang Bookshelf has been meeting new people, on and off line. Not only in Penang, but throughout the country and overseas, I have gained acquaintances, some of whom have become friends. They have taught me much that I would never learned from books and pointed me down new roads of discovery. The Penang Bookshelf Newsletter has probably helped. Again it’s a newsletter that is meant to be the antithesis of most other junk mail. Once recipient described it as “the gabblings of a grumpy old man who puts down whatever comes into his head.” Many prefer it to the books I sell.

Maybe the newsletter is another example of inherited family traits. My late aunt has just had her biography published. One acquaintance remarked of her, “You had to listen to her very carefully because the important things she had to say were always said as an aside.”

The Penang Bookshelf  (for shipping outside Malaysia)  (for shipping within Malaysia)
Telephone: +60-12-972-6485
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Source: Penang International December 2013/ January 2014


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