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The Moon, Singapore. Introspection led to feminism in Singapore based Pakistani, Sarah Naeem

No matter who you are, if you come from a community, when you enter, you will find your representation on the bookshelves

Sarah Naeem: I have been a reader, ever since I was a kid. It was a cumulation of life experiences. The form that it happened to take was the bookstore and cafe. When I moved to Singapore eleven years ago for college, I did not intend to be here for as long as I have been. Circumstances were bringing me back.

When I completed my second degree in Design from the School of the Arts in Singapore, I focused on the representation of women in media. It was a feminist awakening. I had invited a friend from Singapore to fly to Pakistan with me. I was fresh from my degree; inequality and the way we make sense of our world was glaring me in the face. To view my home city through the lens of a stranger. When I walked into the bookstore that my father and I used to visit every Sunday, it was December 2016, I was looking through the philosophy section and I realized no female philosophers were represented. When I reached home, I browsed through my collection of books I had growing up. I realized there was no diversity. In Pakistan there is a lack of representation. In Singapore, the requirement for curation was calling. That is not to say that books we stock are not available in Singapore bookstore chains; they get drowned with the titles that are available, we are not that sort of space. I did not want to have the association of a bookstore or cafe attached to it. Having an establishment that is not labelled allows a consumer to attach their beliefs or experiences to what the name represents to them. The expression that resonated from my brand exercise was that I want people to be over the moon, to escape.

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Beading activity at the Moon

Why did you choose the world of literature and how did your educational experiences contribute?

I was educated in a convent school, and proceeded to go to an international school. My education was in English. Pakistan was a colonized nation. We were looking to the West for influence. This was translated into what we were taught and into the books that I grew up reading. I remember my mother and aunts passing down their books to me, Three investigators by Alfred Hitchcock, Enid Blyton, the Mallory Towers series and Nancy Drew. I grew up in Lahore reading Western literature. I wanted to go to a boarding school. There were books I remember reading, they did have Indian, brown, woman protagonists. I cannot remember titles, except for a handful. I remember the plot line and story as they were relatable. Our experiences are diverse from what we see on TV or in the books. I wanted to create a space, no matter who you are, if you come from a community, when you enter, you will find your representation on the bookshelves.

When I moved to Singapore, I was not inclined towards technology. It is not what I envisioned to base my business around. I wanted to bring my experience to Singapore, an opportunity to disconnect from cell phones and computers and have a chat. The focus of the space was storytelling, through the books you read or conversations with friends, you recount experiences. When Covid struck, we had to shut down for two to three months and we had no online presence, other than an Instagram handle and a landing page for the website. It has been a learning curve, having to educate ourselves to run an e-commerce business.

What is the decision-making process for selecting events to hold and activities to run?

We focus on mindfulness and wellness by hosting four meditation events each month. We work with community practitioners, who are customers, friends and people who have gone from being customers to friends. We host arts and crafts sessions with a mindful aspect. We started a beading session on Friday’s, where supplies are provided. The pieces you make in that time are free for you to take home. We have somebody to guide you, and appreciate feedback from customers. Our customers have said that they work full-time, and prefer coming in after-hours. To accommodate, we opened a Monday evening slot on our cafe floor. We keep bottled drinks available for our customers. The third floor is not accessible for wheelchair users, but we have a ramp available.

Seventy percent of the bookshelves are stacked with books written by women.

To be relevant. Independent presses, writers from South East Asia and South Asia are getting their stories published and being heard. In terms of inclusivity, intersectionality and diversity, not every book written by a female writer is stocked or is worth stocking, there are other selection criteria. I do not do the curation. I have a book curator who reads reviews, study’s authors and then we decide whether we want to stock them.

The lack of female author representation is a theme within publishing.

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SUPERIOR FLOOR AT THE MOON

It started to impact the way that I view my reading habits. Where are the shows that I am watching coming from? Who is writing them? Who is acting in them? Where are the films that I watch coming from? Where is the music that I am listening to coming from? Who are the people that I am spending time with? We need to be mindful about the selection of consumption that we allow in our sphere. When I opened The Moon, it was daunting to think about a feminist bookstore in Singapore. Who is going to be interested in this? We thought of maintaining a low-profile and see how people respond to this section. Within weeks we received feedback that changed our minds. Feminism is a misconception because it has the word feminine in it. It is for everybody and is a representation of difference.

You have started The Same Page’ podcast with the curator of the bookshop, Ruby.

The space is not a destination to sell books, it is to provide perspectives. If I am on the shop floor and I end up having a conversation with a customer, if I have sources of information around a topic that we are discussing, I suggest documentaries, podcasts or TV shows surrounding that topic. I understand that people consume content and information in a multitude of ways. Ruby and I wanted to create an opportunity for people to hear a discussion on books. Practicalities and engagement with our writers, sharing their perspective was the agenda for the podcast. Singapore Community Radio reached out to us when we were looking for people to partner with. They are our technical partners, they control the recording, the editing, the uploading and the content sits on their platform. We organize who is going to speak on it. Ruby prepares the questions, we run through them and she conducts the session.

When hunting for spaces, I looked at thirty properties. I did not want it to be inside a shopping mall. I wanted to have a shopfront. I wanted it to be central and accessible to the people who were going to be able to visit to find time to walk by. I chose Chinatown because it is in the middle of the city. Everyone in Singapore visits Chinatown. It is next to the business district, accessible to those after work hours. The shop has three floors. We occupy the first and the third floor. The second floor is a work in progress. When I was going through the design process, I referred to was Pinterest and facetiming my mother. I went through the shops, doing the design myself. The design aesthetic was: I want to make it feel like home. The shopfront is glass which is not common for a shop in Singapore. Inside we have a vinyl on the wall with our mermaid logo. There is a display table which has our selections of the month. I have a custom scent in the store, you can smell it from outside. I had to inject my brown roots into the space. It is on trend to have a turmeric latte on cafe menus, while growing up, that was a drink that mothers prepared for when we felt ill. We do sell literature that is local to the region, and we do work within the writer’s community in Singapore. We organize events and book launches.

What is Blue Moon Subscription?

We wanted to begin in 2020, but Covid broke our supply chain. We are looking to create a subscription service to provide curation. As a customer, you tend to veer towards what you are comfortable with, unless it comes from a recommendation. This is a risk for us. With this box, we are inviting customers to trust our curation and understand why it is applicable for this time and place. Ruby reads the books in advance. We discuss her selection. We include a note in every box as to why it is relevant for people to read. We do intend to start a Telegram channel for subscribers of the Blue Moon box, to build an avenue for them to discuss the titles that are being read.

Has the bookstore played a part in promoting awareness of sustainability and the dangers of climate change?

In Singapore the cafes charge for non-diary alternatives. We absorb the price. If you come in and order coffee, whether you want to swap regular milk with soya milk, there is no additional cost for that. Had it been up to me, I would not have milk served on the usual, but from a business perspective the price point does not justify it. One of the measures that we have implemented aims to minimize plastic use. We encourage to swap and donate books. As a piece of consumable goods, books can be expensive, we have a community library on the third floor which is built on donations. We operate the library as a swapping system. When Covid broke out, we used to serve our drinks in ceramic glass cups, but due to contamination, we decided to swap to paper cups and takeaways as advised by the government. I would like to cut back on this. We are swapping to a brand called Huskee, which makes coffee cups from coconuts husks.

We work with independent business in Singapore and South East Asia. Our partnership with Hush Candle, two women who worked in the advertising business. We do custom products with them. They make our in-store scent. We stocked a brand of candles called ‘Pass it on’.  They are a social enterprise, donating a portion of their earnings to help planting trees in Indonesia. The candle is contained in a pot, when it runs out, it comes with soil and seeds to plant it. We have a partnership with a designer and producer in Indonesia. He lives in Jakarta and makes embroidered bags, jewelry and masks.

IMAGE GALLERY

The Moon
37 Mosque St
Chinatown, Singapore

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