E-books may be taking over the world, but brick-and-mortar bookstores will always be special because you can never replace the joy of a paperback in your backpack. Live vicariously through your favourite characters at these best bookstores in the city.
RECOMMENDED: Best secondhand and rental bookstores
This independent bookstore is run by two former journalists, Fong Min Hun and Elaine Lau, who handpick the books that are displayed on the shelves. There's nothing on the shelves they don't know about; so if you're at a loss of where to start, just ask them for suggestions and they'll be happy to point out a few books they've read and loved.
Besides the well-curated list of adult fiction, classics and non-fiction, the bookstore also has a Nespresso coffee bar and a common reading area where you can read and discuss about your picks with other book lovers. Be prepared to stick around for a while.
If you meet yet another person declaring the death of the bookstore, bring them to Kinokuniya right away. This mega bookstore on the top floor of Suria KLCC is every book lover’s dream – a soothing space with wooden floors, large windows overlooking the KLCC park, lots of natural light streaming in, and most importantly, shelves upon shelves of well-curated books. The prices here might be higher than average, but the superior book selection, special editions and some of the best book events (Harry Potter Nights!) and readings in the city more than make up for it.The 34,300 sq ft space – made for some serious reading and lingering – houses a kids section, a Japanese section (manga, magazines and Japanese figurines galore) as well as a mezzanine floor for a café and art and architecture books. Apart from stocking a superlative collection (they have more than 2,000 magazine titles and 300,000 books and audio books in English, Japanese, Chinese and Malay), Kinokuniya goes a step further with its excellent online store and helpful in-store staff who will help you locate or order the elusive tome you’re seeking.
It’s fair to say that Buku Fixi is flourishing. Amir Muhammad has enjoyed unprecedented success with his Malay pulp fiction titles, topping Malaysian bestseller lists and scooping the coveted Bookseller International Adult Trade Publisher award at 2014’s London Book Fair.
Aside from its core Malay fiction books, also recommended are Buku Fixi’s imprints Fixi Novo, a line of English Malaysian books; Fixi Retro, reissues of old Malay books; and Fixi Verso, Malay translations of contemporary international bestsellers. While browsing through the kaleidoscope of book covers at Buku Fixi’s brick-and-mortar storefront, remember also to check out titles by other independent publishers DuBook Press, Moka Mocha Ink, Terfaktab Media and many more.
If the bookstore at the swanky Isetan The Japan Store reminds you of Kinokuniya, that’s because they both worked together in creating a haven for those with their noses continuously in a book. The many shelves here are filled with over 10,000 books that are curated by book director Yoshitaka Haba of BACH, a Japanese book direction service. Flip through coffee table tomes on art, design and fashion, or literature by the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro and others. The vibe here is a welcoming calm, so you can take a seat at a comfortable curved chair and start reading the book you’ve purchased. Plus point: get a cuppa from multi-roaster coffee bar, X coffee, lest you nod off for a few moments. It’s happened before.
BookXcess remains the prime spot for cheap books in KL and PJ mainly because it sells books at a fraction of the price you’d usually find at major bookstore chains. The store’s layout may not be the friendliest or prettiest but why bother if you can score fiction, children’s books and hardcover versions of Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks at a 50 percent discount? BookXcess is currently available in three locations. If you can’t make it to any of them, there’s always the online store, which also ships internationally.
Seventeen years and counting, Silverfish Books still bears the hallmarks of a community bookstore. The indie store may have shifted into a mall, but it’s still a book boutique at heart, filling the voids left by mainstream bookstores by peddling local literature, philosophy and Malaysian writing in English. For the kids, the bookstore has introduced a host of children’s book writers and illustrators we would otherwise not know about. All in all, Silverfish’s collection excites serious bibliophiles while also highlighting the charms of Malaysia with a book like say, ‘Hungry in Ipoh’.
This independent bookstore in The Summit has a collection like no other as owner and merchandising manager, Leon Ngai, carefully selects the books himself. They are brand new, but the prices are marked down to encourage young adults to buy more books and cultivate a reading habit. The genres are vast, spanning poetry, adult romance, fantasy and more. For special editions and hardcovers, head to the shelf next to the cashier – we spotted Charles Bukowski.
Online bookstore DuBook Press opened a physical storefront in Bangi in 2015, offering a space for readers to browse the press’s books (‘Terima Kasih Si Babi Hutan’, ‘Dari Tanjung Malim Ke KLCC’, ‘Tora Datang Lagi’, ‘Membedah P Ramlee’, and more) as well as those by other local independent publishers such as Buku Fixi, Merpati Jingga and Rabak-Lit. Think bookshelves lined with slim, gritty non-fiction Malay volumes by mostly first-time authors with provocative content, bahasa pasar and a profanity or two. Once you’ve bought your book, sink into the black sofa and start reading, or strike a conversation about the books with the people at DuBook.
Cite (magazine publisher, champion of local and Singaporean writers, and the biggest Chinese online bookstore in the country) opened a physical bookstore in the form of Cite Book Garden, a small store designed for bibliophiles to relax and browse at length. The book garden features actual plants by way of hanging potted ferns by the window, a few chairs where readers can sit and read, a wall displaying the magazines they publish (ranging from fashion glossies like Vivi to the Chinese edition of National Geographic), a wide selection of titles from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China, and even a small café (they once offered coffee workshops partnering with Exhibit Café from TTDI). The second floor houses an event space for readings, talks, activities for kids, and more.
Lejen Press's bookshop – and boutique, as it carries hoodies and T-shirts – brims with Malay literature, fiction or otherwise, by local independent presses. Your afternoon book-browsing will include titles by Lejen Press (of ‘Awek Chuck Taylor’ fame and ‘Rosmoh: Perempuan Puaka’ controversy, as well as reprints of A Samad Said’s ‘Salina’ and ‘Langit Petang’), and also books by big names Buku Fixi, DuBook Press and Sang Freud Press, along with smaller publishers Obscura Malaysia and Poket Press.
The folks of Project Rabak – musicians, writers, painters, poets, filmmakers and even mime artists – are certainly non-conformists, and you only have to look at Rabak-Lit, the publishing arm of Project Rabak. Here, the Malay language is featured in its freest form, appearing in alternative titles such as ‘Rawsak’, ‘Protopunk’ and ‘Bla Bla Bla’. All these, as well as other selections from DuBook Press and Sang Freud Press, can be found at their gallery in Wisma Sentral; the books by Rabak-Lit are cheaper if you purchase them there too. Projek Rabak also hosts their week-long Kreative festival annually in Ipoh – remember to check it out if you’re ever there.
Against all odds, Gerakbudaya continues to thrive. Pak Chong’s bookstore isn’t just a bookstore, but a cherished community hub, a creative borough packed with a solid, wellcurated selection of books by local and regional authors with a slant towards social sciences and Southeast Asian studies. Gerakbudaya – literally ‘movement of cultures’ – is the gathering spot of choice for the informed and the intellectuals; it frequently plays host to forums and stimulating discussions.
This small bookstore on Jalan Sultan is one of the last booksellers in the area. Patrons have been flocking here for over 60 years for Mandarin books, translated tomes, calligraphy tools, hand-drawn postcards and illustrated travel books. Don’t miss the extensive children’s section, as well as the English titles published in Malaysia and Singapore.
Best specialty bookstores
The eclectic selection of encyclopaedias and guides will help any aspiring artist. You’ll also stumble upon finds like the indie magazine Trouvé and the companion book to ‘Zootopia’.
Besides the usual array of Buku Fixi and DuBook Press novels, you can also find self-published books and zines, which come in a diverse selection ranging from punk and anarchy to literature and film.
DBP makes the list with their selection of Malay classics. Think ‘Hikayat Hang Tuah’ bound in blood red covers. Also score out-of-print gems, such as an anthology of translated German plays.
Best popular bookstores
Best for Starbucks (the folks at Borders know that we need coffee and tea to go with our reads) and music paraphernalia by way of RadioShack.
Best for championing Malaysian talent by publishing local stories and cookery books. MPH is the Malaysia Publishing House after all.
Best for reference books, stationery, gifts, snacks by the cash register (because sustenance is important when we’re reading) and CDs.
Best for a curious curation of art and cookery books and (usually) an attached café.
Best for mainstream Malay novels and surprise finds (for example, secondhand books going for RM5 each). Also keep an eye out for their mobile bookstores.
There are now more Malaysian books than ever, so it's the best time to start adding some local authors to your reading list. To help you out, we've picked ten books by Malaysian writers ranging from fiction, non-fiction and poetry in both English and Bahasa Malaysia. While this isn't a 'best of' list, we highly recommend these books for beginners.
The small press scene in Malaysia is, as it turns out, not so small after all. We explore the good, the bad and the ugly of the profound transformation of local publishing.
If you're not into books, we got you covered. There are also toys, collector's items, crafts and gadgets – there’s something for everyone. Just maybe come back and get a book or two in the future.