Far From Junk

15 December 2017

While Malaysians can shop for brand new books in malls and at book expos, secondhand shops like Junk Bookstore offer an entirely different book-hunting experience.

These days, vintage is the new black but Junk Bookstore, Malaysia’s oldest and largest secondhand bookstore, is the real vintage deal.

It doesn’t even have a digital presence, not really. A quick search of its socials will show an expired website domain, a Facebook page that was last updated three years ago, and minimal Instagram posts tagged to its location.

When we called up store runner Jeffrey Koh at the bookstore and asked if he wanted to confirm our meet in an email, he answered, “Email? No need lah, I don’t have. I’ll be here.”

“Here” is a three-storey shoplot on Jalan Tun H S Lee, in the same vicinity as Central Market and now also 2 Hang Kasturi. This is where Junk has been for the past two decades.

As far as bookstores go, it is filled floor-to-ceiling with books – three million, to be exact, plus roughly 5,000 comics and 1,000 records. Collectively, the secondhand items emit a beautiful, powerful musk of their own little histories."

Established in 1990, Junk is the passion project of husband-wife duo Tan Chee Kee and Adelyn Koh. For the past five years now, Adelyn’s older brother, Jeffrey, has run the place.

Six days a week, Jeffrey takes the LRT from his house in Subang Jaya to Masjid Jamek to get to the bookstore for 8.30am. He’s usually there until lunchtime and more often than not, you’ll find him on the third floor of the store, where he’s set up a neat little reading station for himself.

Not coincidentally, the third floor is also where you’ll find the history and politics section – Jeffrey’s personal favourite.

“I don’t read novels. I prefer history books and biographies. My favourite autobiography is Lee Kuan Yew's From Third World to First: The Singapore Story – 1965-2000.”

The 65-year old did not read as a child or young man, making up for lost time by reading for about two hours a day now. “It keeps my mind working,” he says.

If you find him deeply immersed in a book on your visit as we did, fret not; Jeffrey is a social creature who is more than happy to show you to your book – as long as it’s on the third floor.

The first two floors of the store, home to the reference and subject books as well as the fiction section, are in the capable hands of Junk’s two long-serving, full-time employees.

“They can help you find anything, better than a computer can,” says Jeffrey.

It’s this unique, personalised customer experience that sets Junk Bookstore apart from the chain and online bookstores in Kuala Lumpur – the reason it’s still thriving in spite of them.

Over the years, Junk has built up a clientele of local collectors looking for rare, out-of-print titles not available anywhere else, whether through physical word of mouth or online crowd-sourced reviews. These reviews often reach tourists staying in the city centre, who typically have stronger currency to spare for unique finds.

For example, the oldest book in the store is a copy of The Holy Bible, split into four volumes, published in 1831.

The most expensive is a bilingual history book containing rare photographs: Malayan Chinese Resistance to Japan 1937-1945 – Selected Source Materials. It will set you back RM18,000.

“When it comes to special pieces like that, it’s equivalent to selling antiques. And our customers know to come to us for one-of-a-kind pieces.”

The name Junk is therefore a misnomer, Jeffrey explains.

“It was my brother-in-law who thought of the name ‘Junk’ and I think it was very clever of him. When people see the name, they come in here expecting nothing, expecting nothing very good, but that’s not the case at all.”

Instead, far from junk, you find gems.

Address: Junk Book Store, 78 Jalan Tun H S Lee, 50050 Kuala Lumpur (03 2078 3822). Open Mon-Fri, 8.30am-5pm; Sat, 8.30am-2pm.

By Luwita Hana Randhawa
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi



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