Located in Singapore’s Tiong Bahru district, BooksActually is an independent bookstore that offers a plethora of options to engage with literature and the surrounding community: from local authors to best-sellers, from poetry readings to mini exhibitions, pop-up stores to book fairs, a boutique publishing house to a book vending machine. Established by Kenny Leck and Karen Wei in 2005, BooksActually has now become a significant advocate for Singapore’s literary culture.
In this feature, we speak with BooksActually owner, Kenny Leck, about its focus on local writers and building community.
You had to change locations three times before finally settling in a space in Tiong Bahru, where you still reside today. Can you tell us a little about your history, and how you maintained commitment to your vision even after multiple setbacks?
We have indeed shifted locations three times, and it is only in our fourth location in Tiong Bahru that we have found a semblance of permanency. Our first location was in the greater part of the Chinatown area at Telok Ayer Street. We were housed on the second level of a shophouse, quaint, full of old-world charm (the shophouses were built in the 1910s to 1920s) but business was best described as tepid, since almost no one knew we existed being tucked away on the second level. Two years in, we decided to make the leap to a better location, Ann Siang Hill, ground floor, and of course much more expensive in rent. Our rent at the first location was $1,700 per month, and the shift to Ann Siang would strap us with a monthly $7,000 rent. It sounded crazy back then (and still does) but we bit the bullet, and it paid off. It was in the second location (during our third and fourth year of business) that the bookstore took off. We had better frontage, better sales, got better at what we were doing, and our egos grew bigger as well.
Right around the third year, my mother had passed on, and she had left behind a decent sum from the sale of her residential flat. Buoyed by the success of our second location, we turned our attention to wanting to set up a second bookstore, and we did just that, opening a non-fiction focused bookstore, just a stone's throw away from the Ann Siang store. This new store was located at Club Street, and it was literally fifty steps away from the Ann Siang outlet. Floating on our inflated egos, this new store turned out to be the biggest mistake, and also the biggest saving grace in our bookselling career. At the end of the fourth year, the rental for the Ann Siang outlet was increasing, and sales from the Club Street outlet wasn't doing very well, either. With our egos cut down, we closed the Ann Siang outlet, and shifted everything into the Club Street outlet. As I had mentioned, it was really our saving grace as the Club Street outlet was bigger in size than the one in Ann Siang. We managed to squeeze all the books into a single space, and still had space left for our reading events and book launches. In time, our lease at the Club Street was up, rent was increasing again (from $8000 to $11,500), and that made us look for another location, which led us to the fourth location here, in present day Tiong Bahru. Yong Siak Street, to be exact. Being one of the first few tenants on the street, rental was obscenely low. We secured ours for $3,800 for a two-year lease. Of course, gentrification kicked in, and after seven years here our rent has risen to $9,500.
Somewhere in the challenges of rent increases, insane moving of books from location to location, I think we somehow found the commitment to keep going. I’m not sure if this makes any sense, but in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, the dad character would always shoot off this phrase whenever Calvin complains of the unjust nature of life; he'd say, "It Builds Character.” I'd like to think that the challenges thrown at us (and we are still regularly subjected to a fair amount of them) builds character, and it helps us to keep going.
BooksActually has been noted as being unique for featuring local work, and for hosting the largest collection of Singapore literary publications in the country. Can you tell me about your relationship with these local authors?
It is still a relationship in progress. As with all relationships, we have our fair share of ups and downs with local authors. In a nutshell, we can't please everyone. But we do try our best. More importantly, we have also reached a point where I know the existence of the bookstore is currently quite crucial to the hosting, nurturing, and growth of the local writing scene. As such, we have made it a point that the bookstore will continue to exist with or without the original founders so that the relationship with the authors can continue to find a home to grow.
While watching your documentary produced by Colourbars Media, I was moved by your hope to create space for members of your community to "think independently." Can you explain what this kind of thinking would look like in Singapore? What do you think is the role of books in helping your community to think and create independently?
It’s the thinking that everything is possible. The thinking that wanting to win, and be number one at every single damn thing is fine, but it is also equally fine to fail as many times as one needs to reach the goal that you pursue. I think our current mindset is one that doesn't take kindly to failures, and the inability to consider things at its widest angle and implications. We need to cultivate and understand that nothing is too small or insignificant for us to pursue. Whether you decide to choose a career as a film director or the main grip person on the set, or you choose to be an Elon Musk or Fred Bass (Strand Books), it is the same kind of thinking and attitude.
Strangely, an example that I could think of is gleaned off the fastidious attitude of our founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. There is this anecdote of him informing his staff that he had noticed trees along a particular highway that looked in need of a trim while on his way to another work appointment. This was done to prevent branches falling on the cars traveling on the highway, a likely hazard with our frequent tropical rainstorms. This is an attitude, a mindset that nothing is too insignificant in the work one does, whether you run a country or a bookstore. This is "thinking independently" where you try to make decisions that leaves a positive impact on others, on friends and strangers, and you won't get a thank you every single time. You do it because you can think independently and not what another person tells or influences you to do. As for the role of books, well, as the dad in Calvin and Hobbes said, "It Builds Character," since thinking independently can be quite painful.
In what ways has Math Paper Press, your publishing press, impacted your goals for your bookstore?
It has impacted us in both good and bad ways. The numerous publications that we have put out in the past seven years has certainly allowed us to carry difficult conversations, push the envelope on both liberal and conservative values, and hopefully, in the lighter moments, gift the joy of reading to another person. Of course, it has been a financial strain trying to juggle operating a bookstore and a publishing press at the same time. The pressure is relentless, and there are moments when I do think very hard of giving up one for the other. And yet, I believe it'd come full circle somewhere, somehow.
In 2016 you launched an innovative idea to promote further access to books: book vending machines. Can you tell me more about how you came up with that idea, and how you've seen it work since launching it?
Not a terribly new idea in the vending machine world so we can't claim credit of being innovative with it. Our inspiration was Sir Allen Lane's Penguincubator vending machine that he launched in the London Tube in 1937. His idea was to bring books to the masses, and not just bookshops on high streets. We were more or less motivated by that, though it was perhaps more cheeky fun, and more of a marketing and branding move than sales-driven. Initially, we did what a vending machine salesperson would do. We loaded it with book products, bestselling titles, nice book covers, all at various price points, but sales were a dud. Then we scored really big media interviews and were featured both locally and internationally. So we felt the cost of implementing the machines was worth it, and we are still getting marketing attention from it as shown by your question here. The magic really happened for us when we made a slight tweak of what was sold in the machines. On a whim, we decided to place books all wrapped up, sort of the trending "Blind Date with Books" concept. Basically, you buy a book from the vending machine without knowing the title. It will be a surprise read! And that has been a runaway success.
I read in another interview that you host a monthly dinner with locals in the literary community, and you call it Babette’s Feast. I think this is such a unique idea in a world where the work of writing and publishing can be very isolating. What do you believe is the value of creating real, tangible communities out of literary spaces?
The real value lies in the conversation. I am not going to be naive by saying that the dinners will result in long-lasting relationships with folks in the literary community. People will come and go. But most importantly, it is the chance to have a conversation. A conversation requires more than one person, and that draws the writer out from isolation, as writing is usually a solo task until it reaches the publishing stages. And then you talk, you banter, you argue, you agree, you disagree—but there is always an exchange of thoughts, views, and ideas. To us, that is the value of having the monthly dinners.
Finally, what books are you excited about promoting right now?
There are a few, and I have embedded a link to the description of each book into the book titles except for the first, "Rainbirds," as it hasn't yet launched. In a nutshell, these authors are easily the three most exciting writers to have emerged in the past three years. Their writing is nuanced, a product of their sensitivity to the environment that they have grown up in, with layers like an onion that Gunter Grass would be proud to peel off, in literary speak.