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Two years ago, Randall Chong was running Books Beyond Borders out of a spare room in his grandfather’s home where he collected and sold second-hand books to raise funds for children’s education in Nepal.
Today, the social enterprise has a physical bookstore called The Book Barracks at Jalan Pemimpin, where the public can browse in person from Fridays to Sundays. It doubles up as Books Beyond Borders’ office from Mondays to Thursdays.
Randall, 30, says: “Over the years, we’ve got a bit of media coverage, after The Pride wrote about us, we were able to get a lot of people donating books, and the brand grew. We were very lucky we were able to find this space.”
The team has been operating at The Book Barracks since May 2021. Once a month, they have a sale, which includes deals like $1 adult-fiction books (prices go from $7 to $10 normally). Shelves are restocked with additional books every weekend, as well as other promotions.
This year, with the easing of Covid-19 measures, Books Beyond Borders also set up a roving pop-up store in the heartlands.
Randal says: “We are trying to bring the Barracks experience out so that people who live far from here can also get a chance to browse the books and learn about our mission.”
Building a community of readers
He says: “We’ve built a great community of volunteers, and people who actively support us through buying and donating books.”
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Randall says that on average he receives a few hundred books a month, sometimes this number goes to more than a thousand!
As of 1 March this year, he says, Books Beyond Borders has rehomed 14,053 books and raised $30,164.92.
In Nepal, Books Beyond Borders provides grants to start literacy projects, such as setting up school libraries, funding programs and scholarships, and providing classroom materials.
One partner is The Small World, which runs a shelter that supports vulnerable girls and provides scholarships for them to continue their education.
Randall says: “(Their work) is important because most students drop out after Grade 10 (at 16 years old). For students to continue Grade 11, they only have a few schools near the city. They would need to stay in a dorm in the city and it’s very expensive. 80% of the children in the village cannot afford it.”
“This shelter provides free accommodation for students to continue to study. Otherwise the girls would most likely have to get married.”
“There’s about 30 girls there. It’s very inspiring as a lot of them want to be teachers and healthcare workers. One of them even wants to be an air stewardess. I’m very excited to see how we can continue to raise money to fund our local partners so that they can take in more students in the dorm.”
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Randall says that with the funds raised, Books Beyond Borders has been sustainable, allowing him to pay the bills, employ a small team (himself and two interns) and fund new projects in Nepal without relying on cash donations.
Returning to Nepal
In July, Randall made a two-week trip to Nepal to meet with local partners and find out about the situation on the ground.
He says that although Covid has affected the country, it is now opening up.
“For the last two years we did not manage to fund as many projects as we wanted because the schools were on and off. They did online lessons. When I caught up with some of the schools, one feedback was that a lot of students dropped out during the pandemic. Now they have ramped up to buy back the lost time.”
“We are actively funding a lot of new projects,” Randall says.
It was the first time he could meet the students under The Small World’s scholarship programme and see firsthand the work it is doing.
And this week, Randall is back in Nepal, with a group of five Singaporeans, part of the Books Beyond Borders community who want to find out firsthand about the work they do.
There will be another special guest joining them — a student named Dham whom Randall met in one of the villages three years ago when he was in Grade 8.
Randall shares that he managed to keep in touch with Dham through his teacher, who told him that Dham’s results were among the top 10 in the school!
He adds: “Dham’s dream is to be a social worker… His father wants him to go to India to work (menial labour), just like his brothers. But it’s such a waste. I asked him what he wants to do, and he said he wants to study.”
“We sponsored this trip for him as he has never been out of his village or to the city. And I am arranging for him to get a scholarship for higher education (Grades 11 and 12). I’m very proud of him,” Randall says.
Expanding beyond books
From an online shop to a physical bookstore and now a community-building space, Books Beyond Borders is building on its mission through events such as workshops and talks.
Randall says: “Books Beyond Borders is not just about the books. Books can bring people together. But when people come together as a community, there is a lot more we can do.”
“I thought, ‘What more can we give to our community members? Instead of just book sales, how can we add value?’”
Together with local podcast Stranger Conversations, Books Beyond Borders recently launched a content series called Human Library.
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“The idea is to meet and have a chat with interesting people with inspiring stories and share their stories with our community members. We open the doors for people to come in and ask questions,” Randall says.
Books Beyond Borders is also exploring creating volunteer experiences.
When people talk of their travel plans, few think of going to Nepal for charity work. Randall hopes to change that.
He says: “We are looking to host trips (to Nepal) now that Covid restrictions are easing, to take people to the field to see the work that we are doing, get their hands dirty and meet our beneficiaries. Then they can come back and tell the stories. This way, we can bring the mission closer to them.”
On the future of Books Beyond Borders, Randall says: “We are going to keep trying new things. We will not just be about books. Now we’ve got a community who believes in the mission. So there’s a lot more things we can do, such as hosting trips.”
“Our purpose is to raise money for schools in Nepal (and other low-income countries in the future). We do it now by selling books. The ‘how’ can always change but the ‘why’ will always be the same.”
What keeps Randall going is the support of the community and knowing how he is helping students like Dham.
Randall says: “I believe our mission has shaped some of their perspectives in their lives. This whole energy, the people we impacted, keeps me motivated.”
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Secondary school maths teacher Estee Teo, 37, volunteers at The Book Barracks every Saturday as she loves books and the vibe of the place.
Estee tells The Pride: “I’ve always been looking for volunteering opportunities. I delivered food, but I didn’t feel the connection or affinity. I really love reading and I like to be around books… so I asked if I could volunteer.”
She adds: “After I found this place I started to read a lot more. I get to talk to people about books that I’ve read and even suggest titles for them! What I enjoy most is the connections with people and the friends I made.”
Randall says: “I hope Books Beyond Borders can be a platform where people can be inspired… Everyone has a story to share.
“It started from my story, but now it’s everyone’s story.”