We The People is our August column commemorating Singapore’s 55th birthday. In it, we speak to a diverse slate of personalities, from heritage warriors to environmentalists, entrepreneurs to filmmakers for their vision of society. These are the voices that make Singapore home. For more on the column, click here.
Abdul Nasser is incredibly modest for a man who has indirectly shaped Singapore’s creative industry. He wouldn’t say so himself, but ask any local artist or designer. They’ll tell you how it’s a rite of passage for their people — and anyone else with a persistent penchant for print — to make pilgrimage to Basheer Graphic Books, Nasser’s bookstore.
In the local landscape of bookshops, Basheer Graphic Books is sui generis. First, in its longevity: it has lived out almost 30 years in the same corner at Bras Basah Complex where Nasser’s late father, Basheer Ahamed, had first opened the store. Secondly, in what it keeps alive: art, design and culture, all of which fill the pages of the books and magazines that flesh out Basheer Graphic Books’ humble enclave.
Which brings us back to Mr. Nasser. While running his family business may be a quotidian affair for him, the books he sells have cultivated the minds of our creative community. And he speaks fondly of his customers — some established designers, others studying to succeed them — with only a genuine curiosity for what else his bookstore can offer them.
That, then, makes him the best person to ask about the state of our design scene, how it has evolved, and if arts and culture will ever be exalted as essential in Singapore.
What is the state of the book business in Singapore?
In my opinion, people are still buying books. Publishers keep publishing books, in fact, more than they did 10 years ago. The only thing is that most of the book sales are now online. If a book is not available online, or it’s not mainstream, then people come to us.
What kind of customers do you see in Basheer Graphic Books today?
Architects, graphic designers, fashion designers, animators, game designers and such. Whenever there’s a new trend that emerges on the creative fields, they’ll come and have a look in our bookstore. 10 or 15 years ago, there were a lot of design students too, but nowadays a lot of information is available online. If they already have a habit of buying books, then they’ll visit us.
What are your thoughts on Singapore’s creative scene?
Of course, Singapore has a vibrant creative scene. In publishing, we have independent publications like Werk by Theseus Chan. In Japan, it’s very well-recognised. There’s also Pann Lim and his self-published Rubbish Famzine, which is also well-known in the Asian region, like China and Taipei.
We also have a good regional standing in architecture, for example. Our architects are well-known and sought after in countries like China and India, where they have a lot of projects. There’s so many of them. And designers, too. There are lot of them like Foreign Policy, Chris Lee from Asylum, and Hanson Ho from H55 Studio. These kind of people really carry the flag of creativity in Singapore. Singapore is small, but we need to look beyond that.
How do you think that you, personally, have contributed to our creative scene?
I’ve always thought of my bookshop as just my rice bowl. I never thought that it contributed to the creative industry. But lately a lot of my creative clients would come to me and say, “Hey, don’t underestimate your influence, you’re an icon!” They tell me that a lot of people who have bought my books are now becoming very big in the creative industry, so it’s not true that the bookshop is just my rice bowl. It only occurred to me when people told me that, so now I think, “Oh, so I have contributed too!” [laughs]
What do you consider as the highlight of your career as a bookseller?
I can just stand back and think, “Wow, this bookstore has been around for at least 28 years.” Having your bookshop standing in the same place for over 20 years is a big achievement. Maybe if I carry on for a few more years, Basheer Graphics will be considered as one of the longest standing bookstores in town.
What has been the silver lining for you in 2020?
Of course, 2020 has been challenging for us at Basheer Graphics, but I think we’ve really come to understand our customers’ tastes and demands. The year has taught us some lessons. We hope we can do better for 2021.
Have you ever considered taking Basheer Graphic Books online completely?
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve noticed there is more of a demand for an online business. But for now, inventory is a challenge. We’re trying our best to solve the problem with technology. If it is solved, then we might go fully digital.
Since we’re looking at the future, what is your personal vision for Singapore?
I do feel that the Singapore society is really evolving, especially our younger generation. My dream for Singapore, of course, is that it becomes one of the most vibrant countries in all of Asia. I hope we can achieve it.
And do you think our nation could develop a deeper appreciation for arts and culture as a whole?
Yes, of course. When you look at a country like China, they have a long history so there’s a lot of art appreciation there. Singapore is only 55 years old, so that kind of art appreciation will take more time to develop, but it definitely can.
When I compare my experience selling books from when I just started and now, I find that customers’ tastes for buying books have changed a lot, leaning towards art, photography and such. There are a lot of new customers who appreciate these things. The books I couldn’t sell 10 or 15 years ago, I can sell today. There will definitely be a change, but it takes time.