Despite the many changes and developments in Holland Village, one store has remained a permanent fixture over the years. Here, Periathambi Sathilmurugan shares with us the history as well as the sacrifices and tears that have gone into keeping Thambi Magazine Store alive.
Set up by Govindasamy Periathambi in the 1940s, Thambi Magazine Store has been a constant in the changing landscape of Holland Village. A popular meeting point and iconic spot in the neighbourhood, the newsstand was handed down by Govindasamy Periathambi to his son Periathambi Govindsamy, and is now managed by his 43-year-old grandson Periathambi Sathilmurugan, or Sam.
Unknown to many, the newsstand was only named Thambi Magazine Store when Sam took over. “Thambi” means “younger brother” in Tamil, and Sam befittingly treats his customers with this familial warmth. His ability to strike up a conversation with just about anyone is a trait he shares with his late father, who could strike up a conversation with British soldiers residing in Chip Bee Gardens in the mid-1900s just as easily as he did with local ministers who dropped by for a chat.
The newsstand got its start as a newspaper distribution service. Sam recalled how his grandfather would cycle to Selegie Road every day to collect about 100 newspapers and distribute them to the homes of British soldiers and expatriates living in Holland Village. Sam’s father, in turn, lent a hand with the distribution. He would distribute newspapers to the British soldiers’ quarters located at Ulu Pandan and Maju camps on motorcycle.
The eldest child, Sam began helping out at the newsstand when he was seven at the request of his father. The volume of newspaper distribution was increasing, and his father needed the additional help. “I would be here from early in the morning at 3am to help sort the newspapers and deliver them to a couple of areas before I rushed to school. In the evenings I would be out collecting newspaper money. I did that throughout my school life,” said Sam, recollecting his foray into the trade.
This set Sam on the path of taking over the family business. Back then, he was enrolled in a marine engineering course with MAERSK and had a job awaiting him upon completion. However, when his father was diagnosed with diabetes and became very sick, he once again sought Sam’s help with the newsstand – this time for the long haul. “I saw the long hours he had to work and I had to do my part. I cried when I quit the course because there was no choice,” said Sam as he looked back at the difficult choice he had to make.
Sam’s late father with his daughter at the newsstand in the late 2000s. Photo courtesy of Mr Periathambi Sathilmurugan
Once committed, Sam began learning the ins and outs of the business. He observed the way his father displayed the magazines and devised his own system to promote sales. He would lay the bestselling magazines on the table, categorised by title, but decided not to wrap the magazines so that customers could browse through them before making a purchase. According to Sam, the newsstand carried 7,000 titles at its peak and stocked practically every edition of all sorts of magazines – for instance, all 35 international editions of ELLE magazine.
The layout of the newsstand prior to making way for the Circle Line along the main road. Photo courtesy of Mr Periathambi Sathilmurugan
Today, the number of available titles has fallen but the range remains impressive for a newsstand of its size. In fact, Thambi Magazine Store continues to draw the likes of hipsters, designers and artists, many of whom make a monthly pilgrimage there to draw inspiration from its magazines.
Sam also counts a number of high-ranking retired army personnel among his regular customers. Some of them were officers whom he and his father had gotten to know when they used to deliver newspapers to the army camps. As Sam swiped through the photo gallery on his mobile phone, pulling up old photos he had taken with customers, his affable charm and rapport with them were evident. His prized photo was one taken with Aleksandar Đurić, a former professional footballer, whom he counts as one of his regulars.
Having been in the business for many years, Sam has met all sorts of customers. From one who paid him 50 cents in one-cent coins, to another who would slot a smaller magazine between the pages of a bigger one and attempt to only pay for the bigger one, Sam has dealt with them all. To him, “customers are their business” regardless, and it is this provision of a ‘public service’ that keeps the newsstand running until today.
However, whenever Sam sees his peers from his school days, he regards their lives to be much better than his. “I see my friends now living in bungalows and comparing our working hours and off days, they have more comfortable lives. My friends say that they are not famous like me, but I told them being famous doesn’t bring in money,” Sam said, reflecting on his path.
With memories of his missed opportunities in mind, he has resolved to keep his son and daughter, both currently in secondary school, out of this trade. He declines their offers to help out at the newsstand because he knows how “painful” it is from personal experience and hopes that they will have a different, better life. “If they want to help out and run the newsstand, they have to get a degree first. They will have more options once they have completed university,” said Sam.
“Moreover, my kids do not read the newspapers and spend more time on social media,” said Sam, pondering how his children would be able to recommend magazines to customers if most of their information was gleaned from social media.
Sam’s family at the newsstand. From left, his wife, brother and mother (seated). Photo courtesy of Mr Periathambi Sathilmurugan
Sam’s routine has not changed much since he started helping his father – he still gets up at 3 am every day and works in rotating shifts with his mother, wife, brother, sister and brother-in-law. Running the newsstand continues to be a family affair, and Sam believes that as long as he is around, so will Thambi Magazine Store.
Even as Sam wonders what life might have been like had he not taken over the store, he has become an integral part of the community in Holland Village, and in doing so, created his own legacy. While there may come a day where Thambi Magazines will just be a memory, Sam, and his family, will always be remembered as the “younger brother” who brought life and warmth to a community from their little nook in the neighbourhood.
Written by: Terence Cayden Fong
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign