Young Upstarts

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BooksActually – A Local Bookstore That Thrives In A Digital World

When Borders first arrived on Singapore shores in 1997, it exposed us in Singapore to the potential of bookstores as a social focal point, and more importantly it showed us how bookstores could appeal to the masses and still cater to those who love the printed word with highly knowledgeable staff and a massive collection of book titles.

14 years on, the company in the US has filed for bankruptcy and while Borders Singapore is owned independently by RedGroup Retail (themselves in Voluntary Administration), the reverberations of Borders US’ failure has triggered discussions about the sustainability of physical bookstores in general, and megastores in specificity, especially with digital books and hardware like the Nook, Kindle and iPad being convenient reasons for the issues faced by Borders US.

While Borders US problems weren’t just due to the digital equivalent of books gaining ascendancy, in a time when digital mediums are disrupting industries once bonded to the physical, BooksActually is a beacon for those who worry that the bounded word will fade into obscurity, and with it the sweet smell of promise that comes with each new book.

BooksActually is an independently run bookstore tucked away far from the madding crowd at 9 Yong Siak Street. It is the result of two individuals united by their passion for the written and printed word – Karen Wai and Kenny Leck. They were kind enough to spend some time in the midst of preparing their new home at Yong Siak Street to share with me their experiences and thoughts about running an independent bookstore.

Karen and Kenny of BooksActually
Karen and Kenny of BooksActually

Their journey to owning BooksActually began long before their first store at Telok Ayer Street. It started with parents who imbued them with a love for books, a job at Borders that taught Kenny the finer points of running a bookstore, and days selling books at university bazaars with a starting capital of S$20,000 pooled from savings and family. In 2005 they took the plunge and opened BooksActually on the second floor of a shophouse along Telok Ayer Street with an additional injection of capital.

Store Front Of BooksActually At Yong Siak StreetBooksActually @ Yong Siak Street 

Running an independent bookstore, serving the needs of their customers and building the BooksActually brand hasn’t been easy sailing. Karen had to give up her university degree so she could focus her time and energy to nurturing the growing business. To grow the business and manage rental cost at the same time, they had to move their store a few times, from Telok Ayer Street to Ann Siang Hill, from one space along Ann Siang Hill to another not too far away and most recently from Ann Siang Hill to Yong Siak Street.

L A U N C H & R E A D I N G - Satori Blues by Cyril Wong
L A U N C H & R E A D I N G – Satori Blues by Cyril Wong

Throughout the years, and across the various spaces, Karen and Kenny have built and brought together a community of fans and lovers of literature around their store. They do it by being community leaders, organizing book launches and readings (do checkout their event page here).

author_pencilsOne of the observations Karen made was that there were people who were intimidated by LITERATURE, and to help introduce authors like James Joyce and Salinger as well as spread the love for literature (and savvily grow their potential customer base), they created a range of stationery under their Birds & Co. brand.

These lovingly made stationery like the ‘Author Pencils’ (wooden pencils with names of authors and the BooksActually logo) served as beautiful gifts, conversation starters, brand marketing and introduction to authors who should be loved.

Singa - Literary journalTheir efforts to support the community extend to publishing the works of local writers in publications like Ceriph under their Math Paper Press brand. It is an endeavor not only to help existing writers gain more awareness but also to discover the hidden gems within the community. They can even be considered custodians of Singapore’s literary history after saving hundreds of back issues of Singa from being turned to pulp.

So why should you visit BooksActually when stores like Amazon and Kinokuniya have such an amazingly large catalogue? Because when you browse through the shelves and more importantly, when you engage Karen and Kenny in conversation, you aren’t just going to end up purchasing a book, you are beginning a literary journey with them as your trusted guides.

But doesn’t Amazon have an amazing recommendation system? One with the ability to tell me what other books I should buy by looking at the purchases of other customers. Kenny answered that for stores like Amazon and Kinokuniya, it is about pushing up sales as well as creating best sellers. There isn’t much curating done, if any at all.

Kenny when on to explain that when it comes to literature, recommending a book is more than looking at past and related purchases of other customers. There are many lens of perspective through which an individual can read a piece of work and depending on the person and the lens used (or preferred), lines between related works can be drawn and connections, that an algorithm won’t be able to discover, made. More importantly, if you place your trust in the curator, then it is possible for them to introduce you to new perspectives through the reading of a seemingly unrelated piece of work that will inform the original book bought and read.

Kenny gave an example using George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and Jean Genet’s ‘The Thief’s Journal’. If you search Amazon for either book, neither would be on the other’s recommended titles, yet based on a, I must confess, cursory reading of the summary of each book, one can see the possible connection. If nothing else, I’ve been intrigued to eventually purchase both books.

Kenny shared that the large catalogues of Kinokuniya and Amazon can also be a great asset to BooksActually as Karen and Kenny aren’t afraid of helping their customers find books externally when BooksActually doesn’t carry a title. To them, it is more important that BooksActually is the first bookstore in the customer’s mind when looking for a title or just a new book to read.

It would seem particularly ironic that in this digital world, where books are being replaced by that (i.e. PDFs, eBooks) which we cannot really hold, it is the intangible, incalculable and ultimately invaluable assets that an entrepreneur builds like personal connections with individuals and the community that will be the key to survive if not thrive in selling the physical.

If you love books without broken spines (BooksActually has very considerate browsers as customers), loath price labels that decolorize book covers and more importantly are seeking for a community that respect and appreciate words, one that value its creation and experience, then BooksActually is the store for you. Do seek it out and let this space and its owners enrich you.

BooksActually @ Telok Ayer StreetBooksActually @ Telok Ayer Street 

BooksActually began in a humble store on the second floor of a old shophouse along Telok Ayer Street. It was a project that began with love and sustained with passion, and now an important part of Singapore’s literary history. Ever wanted to build a beautiful third space? The Ultimate Start-Up Space offers you that chance. Follow articles related to the competition here.


Some additional thoughts:
1. Seems to me that Kenny’s path from Borders’ staff to co-founder of a veritable venerable independent bookstore is a big argument for would be entrepreneurs to acquire domain knowledge through some form of apprenticeship.
2. When I used Borders’ new information counter system to find ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, it was next to useless for me. I miss the days when there were knowledgeable (and hot) counter staff who could help us find a book and failing which, would recommend a good book for me to read.
3. I’m not sure if BooksActually is sufficient evidence (and I’m pretty sure it is not, but the heart chooses to believe otherwise), but Karen and Kenny lead me to believe that community spaces built by private businesses run by individuals with a real passion for the community (meaning they would be involved in the community even without the store) is going to do better than those the government try to sanction and promote.

Follow the history of BooksActually through the lens of these other posts:
1. May 1st 2007 – Young Upstarts: A Love For Books Actually
2. April 9th 2008 – blankanvas: more than BooksActually
3. June 27th 2009 – blankanvas: the dirt with booksactually
4. January 12th 2010 – plussixfive: Feature Interview with Kenny & Karen | BooksActually
5. May 4th 2010 – Spirit of Enterprise: Mr Kenny Leck & Ms Karen Wai

1. Karen and Kenny for sharing their thoughts and experiences.
2. The beautiful photo of Karen and Kenny is courtesy of photographer Noel Yeo who covered the first and awesome GOOD Stories.

This article was first published in SG Entrepreneurs.

Isaac is lead developer and writer for SG Entrepreneurs, an online publisher dedicated to the Singapore startup and entrepreneurship scene. He has spent the last four years designing, building and coding systems for financial institutions. He previously served as a technical lead at a Singapore IT firm, and is now recovering from enterprise outsourcing hell by coding with Ruby and Python.

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