Singapore’s first travelling book swap

At the Esplanade waterfront, overlooking the Singapore skyline. Source: Books and Beer Singapore

At the Esplanade waterfront, overlooking the Singapore skyline.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

Last month, on a breezy Saturday afternoon, some 200 book lovers gathered at a bar near the waterfront of the Esplanade Mall to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Books and Beer Singapore.

Its organisers describe the event as Singapore’s first travelling book swap. Book enthusiasts flocked around wooden benches and high tables at Mischief (the bar), overlooking the Marina Bay Sands in the distance. Some of the tables had about a dozen or so books each, spread out from a variety of genre including science fiction, crime & mystery, and fantasy.

Books. Beer. While the words may seem like a misplaced juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated activities, Book and Beer has been around since the summer of 2011. Held frequently at various, changing locations, the event aims to bring together book lovers from all over the island to exchange their already-read materials for new ones; and, of course, to meet other book lovers over a pint of chilled beer. The inaugural book swap in 2011, attended by 12 people, was held at the now defunct Post-Museum.

“On average, we get around 60 to70 people per event,” said organisers Melissa Low and Eileen Lee. The fourth anniversary celebration supposedly was their most well-attended event to date.

The concept of starting a mobile book exchange came from Melissa’s personal experience with lending out books to friends. A friend who had borrowed a handful of books “wasn’t getting hints about returning them,” said Melissa. To make the situation less awkward and confrontational, but to also get said friend to return the books, Melissa organised a private book swap at her place. When she initially set up the event on Facebook, called “Book Swop”, and invited her friends, initially no one responded in the affirmative. Later, Melissa changed the name of the event to “Books & Beer” and offered to throw in “a crate of beer”; in the end over 20 people showed up.

Since then, the name, Books and Beer, stuck on.


The “host” café for the fourth anniversary celebration.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

Back at the Esplanade waterfront, book lovers shuffled from one table to another in search for their next read. As more people arrived, newer books were added to the stacks to replace the ones that had already found homes on new bookshelves. Participation in the swap is simple enough; attendees bring their stack of books they are willing to give away. Books that are up for swap are first stamped by the organisers and then placed on one of the several tables – makeshift libraries -, waiting to be picked, browsed, and taken. Over three hours, the libraries get reshuffled with new additions.

Unlike traditional swaps, participants do not always need to have books ready to be given away, in order to pick up new ones at Books and Beer. “We welcome everyone to the event,” said Melissa and Eileen.

At the end of the day, the books that are left behind are packed up into suitcases and brought home by the organisers. They are added to the new pile of books up for swaps at subsequent events. Melissa and Eileen added that they receive frequent requests to contribute towards book donation drives or book exchange start-ups in residential communities or corporate offices. “On a case-by-case basis, we drop off a bag worth of books at these drives,” they said.

A winning combination of books and beer on a Saturday afternoon. Source: Books and Beer Singapore

A winning combination of books and beer on a Saturday afternoon.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

In a digital age dominated by paperless technology, the demise of printed books has been prophesised for almost a decade. Proponents of electronic books, or e-books, advocate lower cost, mobility, and some even make arguments for the protection of the environment. But print, always resilient to the tides of technological change, is not about to dissolve into oblivion any time soon as Nielsen BookScan, which reports on the sales of both print and electronic books in the U.S., saw a 2.4% growth in the former in 2014. E-book sales, by comparison, are beginning to plateau.

Back in the tropical warmth of Singapore, where the penetration rate of new technologies is one of the highest in the region, the battle lines between e-books and print books are not as clearly marked. So how does Books and Beer attract book lovers and Kindle addicts alike to participate in the “archaic” practice of book swaps?

“We are not a typical book club,” said the organisers, who believe the changing locations and the promise of beer is a start to drawing in the crowd. They encourage their participants to bring in any and all types and genres of books, read and unread. And if participants do not like the books they pick out, they can exchange them for new ones at another Books and Beer event. It is, “kind of like going on a blind date with a book, only you can choose to set it aside,” said Melissa and Eileen.

A wide variety of books can be found in the makeshift libraries.  Source: Books and Beer Singapore

A wide variety of books can be found in the makeshift libraries.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

Books that surface at the swaps range from travel books to textbooks, complete anthologies, and on occasions signed copies or early editions. Another perk, said the organisers, of this book swap is finding hidden memorabilia stowed away between the pages. Over the years, participants have found “a Japanese train ticket,” “Polaroid photograph used as bookmarks,” and occasionally “love notes scribbled on the front or back pages.”

To make things more interesting at their fourth anniversary celebration, Melissa and Eileen worked with Penguin Random House to give away a series of lucky draw prizes, which included a full set of 80 Little Black Classics (top prize) and autographed cookbooks. Penguin also gave away penguin pins to attendees.

The winning prize at the lucky draw was 80 titles of Penguin's Little Black Classics. Source: Books and Beer Singapore

The winning prize at the lucky draw was 80 titles of Penguin’s Little Black Classics.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

“This is the first time we’ve worked with publishers for sponsorship of books,” said Eileen. The books were originally donated by Penguin to be included in the pool of books to be swapped.  But the organisers decided that giving them away as prizes was a great way of thanking their loyal, and expanding, group of supporters and fellow book enthusiasts.

At Penguin’s suggestion, there was also a book reading segment that afternoon for author and founder of The Singapore Writers Group, Alice Clark-Platts. Previously, the organisers of Books and Beer also collaborated with the National Library Board as well as the Singapore Writers’ Festival.

First-time attendees usually hear about the event through word-of-mouth, despite the strong social media presence. I first heard about Books and Beer through my friend, Meera, who had, in turn, heard about it from another friend. To cast the net wider, Melissa and Eileen leverage on the extended networks of their sponsors, partners, and host cafes.

While Melissa and Eileen have no plans to set up a permanent venue for their growing book swap, they plan on undertaking more collaborative efforts to retain the novelty factor; this includes getting involved in the art scene and also finding ways to welcome hardcore e-book devotees into the book swapping mix. Also in the making is a book-themed dinner at Carvers & Co on Upper East Coast Road.

“We’d like to think that beer provides the social lubricant for making this happen but food is what really gets Singaporeans talking!” said Melissa and Eileen.

Check out Books and Beer on the social web – here, here, and here.


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