September’s International Bookshop of the Month – Wardah Books, Singapore

Wardah Books was established in 2002 in the historic Muslim precinct in Singapore called Kampong Gelam. We are located at 58 Bussorah Street – a street that has a long history of bookselling starting from the 1880s. We are now the only bookshop left on this street, but we don’t feel like we’re alone because we have a sense of connection with the past and hope that booksellers will come back to this street in the future. We specialise in English-language books on Islam and our subject ranges from the Quran to the sayings of the Prophet, from Sufism to Philosophy, from History to Current Affairs, from Islamic Law to Interfaith studies. So our readership is basically anyone with an interest in Islam.

1. How many staff do you have working for Wardah Books?

We have six booksellers. They all have slightly different responsibilities and different areas of interest. Since the pandemic started we have had to put more booksellers on the e-commerce part of the business.

2. What changes have they seen in bookselling and in customers over the years in Singapore?

Over the years, I’d say the greatest change has been in the way we track sales, inventory and customers. When we started out, we were much smaller and we were able to manage all things manually. I don’t think we would have been able to scale up the business without new user-friendly software, cloud computing and apps that integrate customer relationship management with things like customer loyalty points, and email newsletters. We are also able to analyse things much better and this helps us in re-ordering and in making sure titles are kept in stock.

But some things remain the same. Customers still value coming into the shop and interacting with booksellers and with each other. The space of the bookshop and how we display books has a huge bearing on customer experience and their ability to discover titles.

The profile of customers has changed over the years. For some reason, about 75 per cent of our customers are women. When we started out, the gender ratio was about even, and may have even skewed male slightly. We don’t specifically target a female readership so I assume this reflects a change in the way contemporary men and women read in society at large. By this I mean to say that men in Singapore are probably reading much less nowadays. We are not sure what to make of it.

3. Given the restrictions we’re all experiencing during this pandemic, how has the bookshop fared or what have you done differently?

When the pandemic first hit us in 2020, we had to pivot hard towards e-commerce. Thankfully our website and processes were already in place. We just had to put more people on it. We had been seeing a gradual increase in online sales over the previous years, but the pandemic speeded everything up. We are grateful that we were ready for it, especially when we had to operate online exclusively for about two months during the first lockdown.

Now Wardah Books is fully hybridised – running both online and physical stores. We see customers shift easily between the two modes of book buying.

The other thing that we had to do was to move all our activities online. So now our book club is on Zoom, our author sessions are on Zoom, and we even have an online silent reading club that meets on Zoom every Sunday morning. But we hope to restart in-person meetings soon, but only when it is safe and responsible to do so. Zoom has been a lifeline, but I don’t think it is sustainable in the long run. It is important for bookstores like us to foster a community of readers, and this is best done on a person-to-person level, in-person and in-store.

4. Have you seen an increase in sales? What is the best-selling area in the shop? How has this changed over the years?

I’d say our sales are steady. Peaks in sales can be attributed to new and exciting titles, but on the whole, sales are steady year on year.

The Islamic classics always sell well, and by this, I mean the books that our community has found useful generation after generation. These are books by Imam al-Ghazali, Imam al-Haddad and so on. Over the past years, there has been a very noticeable increase in the popularity of motivational or self-help books. This year I see a gradual uptick in books on the life of the Prophet.

5. Do you have a favourite book from Yale University Press?

Omid Safi’s Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition as well as William Chittick’s Divine Love: Literature and the Path to God.

Our bookshop leans heavily towards Sufism, and so my two favourite books from Yale University Press reflects this.

If you want to find out more about Wardah Books, you can check out their website, Instagram or Facebook page, or pop into their shop in Singapore!

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