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The death of physical bookstores and the lack of reading culture in Malaysia

I often see people burying their faces into their phones on the train, mindlessly wandering about stories on Instagram or the hottest trends on Twitter. With the death of bookstores increasing each year and the lack of book exposure to Malaysians, one can expect the general public to have little interest in reading paperbacks. Perhaps some prefer reading e-books and have thus shifted away from their physical counterpart. Before the pandemic, nationwide bookstores, namely MPH and Popular, have been closing their outlets. One of Malaysia's iconic bookstores shut down its 1 Utama outlet after 15 years of operating.

With the pandemic affecting the operational aspect of physical stores, corporate-managed bookstores have opted to cease their operations in several outlets throughout Malaysia following movement restrictions in June of 2020. Well-known bookstore chain MPH decided to close many of its outlets. Its CEO Donald Kee said that the company would shift from a physical business model to a digitalised one. If company established bookstores are struggling to earn a profit, I shudder to put myself in the shoes of an independent bookstore owner.

Although, the sheer lack of an established reading culture in our education system may be a cause. The current prices of books deter people from purchasing them. The average cost of an English paperback in Malaysia is RM35, whereas a Malay paperback would be RM25. With the minimum wage of Malaysians being RM4.81/hour, it would take 8 hours to afford an English paperback, while a Malay paperback would cost you 6 hours.

For context, in the United States of America, the price of a new paperback book would likely cost an average of 8 to 12 American dollars. In comparison, the minimum wage of Americans is $7.25/hour, almost double what Malaysians are earning. To afford a paperback in the United States, a person need only work for less than two hours. Most Malaysians have to worry about paying off their monthly expenses such as housing, car and study loans amid the gradual increase in the cost of living. Spending their day's worth of a hard-earned salary may not be the wisest thing to do.

Not to mention, I've found it challenging to find well-known classic literature in bookstores, namely MPH, Popular. In cities such as New York City and London, you can find bookstores almost anywhere. It is generally understood that in every borough of New York City and London, most likely at least one bookstore would be there. The selection of books on e-commerce websites such as Carousell and Book Depository seems to hold a more varied book genre. Carousell being primarily a marketplace for selling second-hand goods, the price of books is lower. In contrast, Book Depository is a UK-based online bookseller with an extensive catalogue of books offered for its original price.

The two pictures below serve as a comparison of prices between online bookstores and second-hand retailers.

2nd hand book on Carousell

Book Depository

Do you think reading is essential? Does reading play an impactful role in increasing Malaysians literacy and help sow the seeds of empathy and understanding in humans? Let me know in the comments below.

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