Wednesday, July 8

Sarawak booklovers’ unsung heroes – the saga of Larry and Annie

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IN 2008, a couple from Sarawak who had migrated to Chilliwack, British Columbia in Canada in 1992 started a modest stall at the Kuching Festival held at the Jubilee Ground in Kuching called the Second Time Around Book Fair. They were just helping a friend, who had earlier started this business of importing second-hand books but couldn’t continue for personal reasons.

Larry Siah was born in Kuching and had been operating a business selling gifts, cards, and other novelties called Expressions; firstly at the Kuching Plaza shopping complex (now the new Sarawak Tourism Board office) and later at Wisma Saberkas. Larry’s wife Annie Chen was born in Sibu but had spent her childhood in Sarikei and then studied at St Joseph’s in Kuching. Annie was a daughter of Chen Ko Ming – Sarikei member of parliament from SCA (Sarawak Chinese Association) from 1971 to 1974.

Larry’s concept for the book fair was simple and basic, and meant to cater to the reading masses. All the books that he imported by container load were sold at prices a fraction of what they had originally cost. This was because they were used, second-hand, pre-loved books mostly culled from libraries throughout the United States of America or in bulk from book depositories and bulk resellers.

For this effort, they had to make their annual ‘pilgrimage’ back from Canada for at least a couple of months every year. After the first two years participating at the Kuching Festival, Larry was invited by the operators of Crown Square to move there for their annual year-end four- to six-week book fair. They accepted and were there for three years from 2010 till 2012. When that floor space became occupied, they then moved to The Hills Shopping Mall in 2013 and last year marked their sixth anniversary there.

 

(From left) Larry, Annie, the writer’s wife Doreen, and the writer at the bistro café filled with books.

 

What really amazes the casual browser when he or she first step into Larry’s Second Time Around Book Fair is the range of the books on sale, and then the very friendly pricing hits you. There are books of all genres and subjects, fiction and non-fiction; good quality hard covers, paperbacks and pulp fiction. Their range of children’s books, DIYs, cookbooks, travel and guide books, IT and computer, design and technical, classics and romantic novels, serious literature and biographies, and so on and so forth are the answer to a bookworm’s prayer. They also have a good and varied religious section as well.

The pricing of the books is most affordable; 90 per cent of them cost RM9.90 or less; very few are priced over RM15, and I personally found that the average mean price is around RM7. Although used and second-hand, the condition and quality overall ranges from good to excellent.

Larry told me at a recent meet-up that the most tedious job he found was the sorting out of the books after they arrived here, before he could put them out for display and sale. Every single volume gets his personal attention; he sorts them according to category, subject matter, book condition; and he prices them accordingly. His strict personal code also means that he will censor and/or junk any book with contents such as sex, cultish and extremist views on religion, politics, and any other sensitive issues. In all the years of the fair, he hasn’t had any problem with either the local censorship board nor any other authorities concerned.

I have estimated that over this period of 11 years, Larry and Annie must have imported almost close to a million books to our shores. This latest edition, which started on Nov 3, 2018 will end on Jan 31 (after a four-week extension at the request of The Hills management). This time round they brought in 100,000 used books – with over 30,000 different titles! This last fair they also brought a smaller version to Miri for the very first time as well.

In 2017, Larry started displaying and selling his books (after he has packed them all up at the close of the book fair) at friend Desmond Liew’s bistro café, Le Parlour Café Studio, located next to the Stutong Community Market (opposite Kuching Specialist Hospital). This newly-opened bistro is an ideal fusion eatery where you can have great coffee with an excellent dine in menu and sit and browse and pick up a few books at bargain prices.

I first met Larry on Facebook a few years back after he made contact with me. He had seen that I have been a very strong supporter of his efforts and had used my public and private pages to help promote his book fairs whenever they were in town. I was also a regular and frequent customer since the very early years of the fair although I had not met him personally then.

In an interesting twist of fate, I had, unknowingly then, some 48 years ago met Annie way back in 1971 in Sarikei, just before she left to further her studies in Kuching. I stayed in her father Chen Ko Ming’s house as a boarder when I transferred from Sibu to Sarikei for a three-month assignment to run the branch (then only a depot) of The Borneo Company, when the then supervisor Joseph Yii had taken a long sabbatical. Today we both find it hard to believe that life is sometimes like what they say in Disneyland, “it’s a small world after all …”

Both Larry and Annie have brought the wonderful world of affordable books to Sarawak for over 11 years now, and on behalf of all the booklovers like me who have benefitted from their efforts, we say a big thank you and wish them many more years of the Second Time Around Book Fair that we can look forward to at the end of each year. Thank you Larry and Annie, and may God bless you both.