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By The Book: An Interview with Kenny Leck, Owner of BooksActually

In a time of crisis, where most people are stuck at home, there’s beauty and comfort in creating a little safe and cosy nook for yourself, and curling up with a good book. With the public libraries closed till further notice, it might just be in your best interests to purchase a new title, give yourself a little me time, and bury yourself between the covers for a couple of hours on end.

If it’s one place you’re sure to be able to find the right book for yourself, that place is likely to be BooksActually. Founded in 2005, the local independent bookstore has become a staple of the local literary scene, and a must-visit if you happen to be strolling down Tiong Bahru. Owned by Kenny Leck, the quaint bookstore has earned itself a strong legion of fans, not only for its diverse and well-curated selection of titles, but also for its warm and welcoming environment, with plenty of literary events, and as a space for fellow book-lovers to meet. Not to mention, the chance to see the store’s three adorable cats Cake, Pico and Lemon.

Since temporarily closing its doors on 4th April due to the current circuit breaker measures, BooksActually has continued to stay strong. For now, they’re operating from a home basis, with eager readers still able to place orders via their website, and regularly holding Instagram Live chats with authors and other members of the local arts scene. We spoke to Kenny Leck to find out more about how they’ve been doing during this period, and the role a bookshop plays in a society. Read the interview in full below:

Kenny Leck, photo courtesy of Arts House Limited

Bakchormeeboy: BooksActually has been closed since 4th April, but continues to maintain its website, allowing for online orders and still engaging with customers on social media. How has that experience been for you guys?

Kenny: I think the experience has been both familiar and unfamiliar specifically for us. Even though we have been a brick and mortar bookstore since our beginning 15 years ago, the ability and capability of having an online store has always been part of our work for the past five years or so. So in that sense, the work is familiar to us as we do have online store orders on a daily basis before even COVID-19 was an official term. Yet, it is only unfamiliar because we are a fully operational online bookstore business. It actually requires more effort and more attention as we still try to keep up with the customer interaction as best as the digital barrier allows. Customers will ask a question over email to inquire for a book, and it is our practice to reply to the customer within a 3-hour window (during working hours) and 12-hour window (after working hours). This applies to our weekends as well. If this was at the physical store, the query would have been easily resolved at the counter-front.

Kenny Leck, photo courtesy of Arts House Limited

Bakchormeeboy: Even before COVID-19, it can be a huge struggle, financially at least, to maintain an independent brick and mortar bookshop. How has BooksActually continued to stay strong and survive all these years? Is a bookshop simply a shop that sells books, or is it so much more than that?

Kenny: Technically, we are a bookstore that only sells books. Or at least with every succeeding year in the past three years, we have fully migrated to 99% book products. There was a time when we did have a fair share of vintage products (due to my hoarding) and quirky stationery products. From an intangible standpoint, we are “selling” an experience. A true blue brick and mortar bookstore in Singapore is a rare beast these days.

And for folks that walk through our doors for the first time, there is always this wonder how can this still exist. Of course, if we leave enough of a good impression, they might purchase something before leaving. At the very least, they’ll think of coming back again or share the existence of the bookstore through word-of-mouth or social media.

For our regulars, it is the strength of our book collection that probably is key to them coming back. Taking off my bookseller’s hat, and putting on my reader’s hat, if I stepped into a bookstore that I am a regular at, the last thing that I want is to no longer be “wowed” by the collection of books. Specifically, as a reader and regular of the bookstore, I want to be faced with the conundrum of having to leave some books behind for my next trip because one can only buy so many books in one trip.

Interior of BooksActually

Bakchormeeboy: Maybe you could tell us a bit more about the profile of people who come to BooksActually. Is there still a healthy number of book-buyers in Singapore, or even readers for that matter? Will the physical book ever die as we move towards an increasingly digitalised age?

Kenny: We typically do see a younger demographic from age 20 to 39. This age band forms at least 50% of the customers that patronises BooksActually. And yes, I’d say there is still a healthy number of readers of Singapore. Another way of putting it is that if there are more bookstores, there will be more readers. I am both a supporter of the physical and ebook. Whichever way humanity evolves through evolutionary reading habits, I am there to support it. There is no lack of ideas to how physical bookstores can still exist even when digital books are the dominant player. I take my cue from Amazon’s very own physical bookstores. You go in there not to buy a physical book but rather a chance to browse through the content, and then download it into your Kindle.

Of course, we also have our publishing imprint, Math Paper Press. It is actually even more cost effective now that we do not need to print physical copies if the latter medium dies.

Interior of BooksActually

Bakchormeeboy: What does the future of the bookshop look like? How can digital content complement physical books and a physical space, especially considering BooksActually has thrived on events such as readings, signings and releases.

Kenny: Even with digital books being a dominant player in the books industry, the need to socialise is an ingrained evolutionary behaviour in us human beings. So events such as readings, books launches and signing are still integral to a digital book world. I think we are just lucky that we are not made up of 0s and 1s.

Interior of BooksActually

Bakchormeeboy: BooksActually also maintains Math Paper Press. What is it like to maintain both a bookshop and to be a local publisher? What are some of the new upcoming titles we can look forward to seeing once COVID-19 blows over?

Kenny: To maintain both is one of the craziest things that we have done, and still doing. There is a saying that you can’t have both pieces of the cake at the same time, and yet, this is what we are trying to do. I am not saying we are doing it very well but we try to excel in moments that allow us to shine through. That saying, I’d still choose to do both if given a choice. It has added a layer of perspective to our bookseller’s mindset. We are actively re-starting our Chapbooks series as we want to take on more experimental works, and the chapbook format is perfect for that.

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Illustration by Marie Toh, from BooksActually’s Facebook

Bakchormeeboy: Let’s hear a bit more about your thoughts on literary spaces such as The Arts House and events such as the Singapore Writers Festival. Where does BooksActually fit in to the larger literary picture? How involved does BooksActually get, or have to get, each time these events roll around?

Kenny: I think spaces such as The Arts House or major annual events such as Singapore Writers Festival, and including literary entities like ourselves, Sing Lit Station, Singapore Book Council, and National Arts Council are like planetary bodies circling the sun, with the sun being the Literary Arts scene. None of us are greater or important than the other. In a reverse way of how the sun actually works, the “work” that these planetary bodies do, contribute to how strongly this particular “sun” shines instead.

Our involvement depends on a few factors. It can be available bandwidth, manpower or just the idea that we should be doing something new instead of the same-o same-o.

No photo description available.

BooksActually is currently offering free local delivery for orders of 4 books or more. Photo from Facebook

Bakchormeeboy: While we do know that organisations such as the Singapore Book Council and National Arts Council are there to support authors, what kind of support can businesses like bookshops hope to receive?

Kenny: I’d really like to see them to excel in the area of branding communications and marketing. As entities that might have more resources than us, I’d really like to see them as the leader of the Literary Arts pack when it comes to platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok or even book groups within messaging apps such as Telegram. I won’t accept the explanation that the mandate is different as they are more of a “trade body” than a retailer or publisher. To adopt that mindset, you’d have instantly lost the initiative to “occupy” the mind space of all the readers and potential readers out there. Remember how I said the Literary Arts scene is a sun, and the rest of the entities are planetary bodies. The readers and potential readers are the stars.

Bakchormeeboy: What’re you currently reading?

Kenny: Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen

Meeting BooksActually’s friendly felines is one thing you can look forward to doing again once they reopen

Bakchormeeboy: How can people continue to support BooksActually during this period?

Kenny: Simple, our #nevernotworking 24/7 Online Store at www.booksactuallyshop.com

BooksActually is located at 9 Yong Siak Street, Singapore 168645. While the physical store is closed for now due to the circuit breaker, check out their catalogue and order books online via their website. Stay connected with them on their social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Bakchormeeboy’s new section By the Book covers all things book and literature-related. Read the rest of our reviews and interviews by checking out the category here As part of this series, we’ll be reviewing one book every fortnight from BooksActually. If you have any suggestions on books you’d like us to review, feel free to email us or DM us on Instagram

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