Every morning, Flow Bookshop owner Surdham Lam takes a moment in front of his store before opening it.
He takes a breath, reminding himself of the here and now. He then slowly puts the key into the keyhole, listening attentively to the sound of the door being unlocked.
“Good morning. I am back. Thank you for letting me share your messages with other people,” Lam says to around 30,000 books piled up in his 1,200-square-feet shop. He imagines they have a life of their own as in Disney movie Toy Story.
After that, he lights an incense stick in front of a Bodhisattva statute as a gesture of paying respect to life.
“Then I wait for visitors,” the keeper of the 20-year-old secondhand bookstore told HKFP.
Located in a commercial building on Lyndhurst Terrace in Central, Flow is a legendary bookstore.
It has received many public figures, including former US Consul General Clifford Hart and senior judge Kemal Bokhary. Undersecretary for the Environment Christine Loh is a regular. Pakistan’s commerce minister also visited Flow on Wednesday during a brief tour to the city.
But Flow is more than a bookstore.
“I am not selling books. Here, I build relationships with people through conversations,” Lam said. He considers his mission to be extending the lifespans of books by finding them new owners: “By passing a book to you, we set the book free.”
At Flow, books come and go, but Lam has a message for his guests: pass books on when you no longer have time or space for them.
Over the years, the bookstore has attracted a community of readers who agree with its vision.
Central resident Ms. Lee, for example, gave Lam eight antiquarian books that her family had kept for over three decades, after she found in the shop a rare book that a friend was looking for.
“Some books you won’t re-read, and you want other people to enjoy them. You don’t want them to go to waste,” she told HKFP. “I trust that Lam will find new owners for my books.”
While some have complained of the bookstore’s “messiness,” others are drawn by its lack of a commercial vibe, and Lam’s affable character.
“Other bookstores are just about making money, but Flow is different,” musician Timotzin Leung told HKFP.
He first visited Flow 20 years ago, but did not get to know Lam at the time. When he returned some years ago, he found a section of Buddhist titles that interested him.
Leung said he was not wealthy enough at the time to just buy anything he wanted, but after he had a chat with Lam, the bookshop owner offered him a book.
“He said, take this book from Flow as a gift,” Leung recalled. The musician returned the next day to give Lam as a gift a prayer stone from Tibet, which remains in the shop to this day.
“Lam is much more interested in the person than in getting money out of you,” Leung said fondly of the bookseller.
Lam was an education officer at a green NGO when his colleague took him to a secondhand bookstore in the Mid-Levels, where he had a calling.
“I am a daydreamer – not very pragmatic,” said Lam, who majored in philosophy in university. “For my NGO job, anyone could replace me. But a bookstore, it has a lot of room for imagination.”
Soon, he quit his job to work at the Mid-Levels bookstore, until he decided to start his own in the eventful year of 1997.
“I didn’t expect to still be running it 20 years later,” Lam said.
While the location and name of his bookshop have undergone several changes, the 53-year-old remains an idealist in a business-minded city, even if that means he needs to do work on the side such as translation and teaching meditation to pay the rent and feed his family.
But it has become increasingly difficult to run a book business in the heart of high-cost Hong Kong. Last November, all local branches of international book chain Page One shuttered due to financial troubles. Many independent bookstores struggle to survive despite having moved to places with lower rent.
It is a reality that Lam was finally confronted with this month, when his landlord obtained a court order freezing Flow’s assets over outstanding rent.
Lam issued an urgent appeal just 13 hours before a public auction was arranged to clear his book stock. Many responded to the call and offered help. Though the donations were not enough to meet the target, Lam was granted a seven-day extension to raise HK$150,000. In the meantime, his shop was padlocked to protect the interests of the landlord.
At the time of publication, Lam had raised more than one-third of the amount needed.
While Lam’s pressing task is to collect funds, he is also looking to reorganise the business to ensure its long-term survival.
“I know I am not doing a good job with running the shop,” he said. “But a lot of people have offered support in the past few days… I don’t want to let them down. I want to look for ways to transform Flow and make it better.”
He has considered a range of ideas, such as using part of the shop as a multipurpose room or a cafe, and keeping a more active stock by regularly donating books to places like schools, hospitals and orphanages.
Though some people have suggested moving to other districts with lower rent, Lam wants to stay in Central, which has been home to Flow for two decades. During this time, the store has brought together a community of book lovers, and it would be difficult to start again elsewhere.
A people with inner values
Unfazed by the uphill battle, Lam is resolute about keeping the book business because he believes in the power of reading.
“Every book is filled with wisdom. Reading is a habit – it provides the foundation for our thoughts. With a habit of reading and thinking, you develop inner values,” he said.
These values help people remain independent in the face of external forces – like corporate media – that try to influence them, Lam said.
“In our eyes it may just be a book, but it contains the power to connect with people spiritually,” he added. “Books nurture our minds.”
Lam’s ideal has drawn like-minded people. One of them is Mr. Sin, who works in Central and visits Flow almost every day during lunch hours to find books for promoting on his Facebook page HK Booklovers. He even goes all the way to treasure hunt books at request and hand over items to customers in person.
“There are many books you can’t find in normal bookstores – many old books are unique,” he said. “I think many people in Hong Kong like reading. It is not a cultural desert.”
Lam smiled as Sin told his story. The bookshop owner said he hopes to inspire more people to love the world of books. “I am not particularly smart, but I also won’t underestimate my infinite possibilities and my potential to contribute [to society],” he said.
When Flow survives the crisis and reopens, Lam will return to his old routine. Every day for two decades, he waits in the quiet space for the next visitor and the next conversation he will be having with them.
He makes the effort to remember every customer. He can also recite some of the books that they brought to or took from the shop.
He has heard countless stories from customers – some personal, some book-related – through which he learns a great deal about the world. His goal is to make an animation about these stories, which together make possible the story of Flow.
As a token of gratitude for every encounter, he sometimes leaves a message on the inside page for his customers.
It is a poetic, humble request from the keeper of books: “May I borrow your reading time?”