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Go with the Flow

Surdham Lam, the owner of Flowbooks, says that the mission of the bookshop is to let books and feelings “flow”.

Surdham Lam, the owner of Flowbooks

Surdham first set up Flowbooks in 1997, after the bookshop where he initially worked shut down. 

"I did not deliberately plan to open a bookshop. I just hoped to convey the attitude of simple living, which I thought opening a bookshop could do."

Surdham does not call the books sold in Flowbooks “second-hand”, but rather “recirculated”, or “shared books” in a more modern sense. “There is nothing we can own forever, books included. When my customers encounter different phases of life, for instance relocation or emigration, they will bring their beloved books to my shop, letting them ‘flow’ and have a second life,” says Surdham. 

The day before we interviewed him, Surdham received a pile of books from a retired police constable, who had carefully catalogued the books in the past but is now too old to take care of them. Another customer had just rescued some books from his own office which is being relocated. “He came to our shop by taxi and donated the books to us. What I could do is give him a book voucher in return, which I don’t think was equal to what he gave. But I was glad to see him leaving happy, as if he had done something meaningful,” Surdham recalls.

Surdham Lam says he’s “addicted” to sharing his feeling with his customers via books.

Preach with the Books

Besides letting books “flow”, Surdham pays more attention to sharing his feeling and values with his customers via books. And, over the past 20 years, Surdham has been practicing what he preaches.

“It sounds like preaching, but I preach with my selection of books,” Surdham says.

He has such a strong memory he can remember most customers by the books they bought in Flowbooks, and he is also keen on recommending books to his customers. “A young Brazilian tourist dropped by my shop two years ago,” he says. “We had a long chat and she told me about her frustration with her PhD studies. I encouraged her by giving her a copy of Sabine Kuegler’s Jungle Child. Recently, she came back to Hong Kong, telling me that she had good progress in her studies, and gave me a copy of her favourite poetry book as a token of thanks.”

Thanks to the strong bonding between Surdham and his customers, he gained tremendous support when Flowbooks faced the biggest crisis last year, when outstanding rent almost led to its closure. “When I first heard that the landlord was going to regain possession of the property, I worried about the books more than anything else – where should I store or relocate the books?” Surdham says. Fortunately, many loyal customers rescued the bookshop via crowd-funding, and Surdham was very grateful for that. “I was very lucky to have the support of the customers, who care for the books and myself so dearly. I am also thankful to the landlord for being so understanding. When he learned that we were trying to raise funds for paying the overdue rent, he gave us an extension to sort things out.” 

Surdham Lam hopes to soothe his customers’ hearts with the books in his humble shop.

 “Flowbrary” in the Neighbourhood

The challenge did not defeat Surdham and Flowbooks. Instead, he sees it as a necessary “flow” of the shop. “There is a saying that goes, ‘all is well’,” Surdham says.

“Even when something bad happens, something good will come of it.”

The funds prevented the shop’s closure though it was forced to move to new premises. “The Brazilian author Paulo Coelho says, ‘the secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.’ This is also my belief,” he says.

Although the new shop is smaller than the previous one, Surdham still hopes to provide a cosy environment for his customers, so they can relax and enjoy reading and chatting about books. Surdham even has a more aggressive plan of introducing the concept of “Flowbrary” (or free book exchange) to the local neighbourhood. “At a time when printed books are being overshadowed by the internet and other forms of entertainment, we, as bookshop operators, should do something to make books more accessible to all walks of life,” he says. 

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