Kenny and Karen have a common, and almost obsessive, passion for books. The couple’s first date was spent at the National Library, later followed by a book-buying spree. Today the proud owners of Books Actually, the couple still spends much of their spare time buying books for themselves and for the store.
Books Actually is an amazingly quaint bookstore located in the heart of the Singapore’s financial district. Residing on the second storey of a Telok Ayer shophouse – between a ground-floor cafe and a clan association headquarters above – the obscure Books Actually is not easy to stumble upon. It’s tiny and it lacks a signboard, hence it’s not surprising that most people learn of Books Actually through word-of-mouth.
(I only knew about it when someone from my writing group, WriteClique, informed us of a poetry reading session held at the bookstore.)
But booklovers who discover it are duly rewarded. Run by couple Kenny Leck, 29, and Karen Wai, 22, Books Actually exudes a simple yet comfortable bookish charm. They welcome visitors with real warmth – not your professionally-trained, Giordano-type greetings – and their love for written word is instantly palpable. There’s also an amazingÂ multitude of retro stuff that decorate the store, such as film cameras, typewriters and even an old Atari joystick.
Starting them young.
Kenny graciously takes some time off stock-taking for this interview, and Karen joined us after she finished stuffing some books back onto shelves.
So why start your own business?
“Karen’s always had an entrepreneurial streak. She’s someone who has always taken the next step, or to take risks,” Kenny mused, looking at Karen. She took a big step when she decided to study film, sound and video in polytechnic instead of a more traditional field. “My family disapproved, of course. After all, most parents want their children to be doctors or lawyers,” Karen added.
It will surprise some that Karen is still studying – she’s an English Literature undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She commutes almost daily from university, the bookstore in town and home in Jurong West. Now that’s commitment.
Retro junk. We like!
For Kenny, his family had always been entrepreneurial. His great-grandfather was a businessman in China who later moved to Ipoh, Malaysia where he also owned businesses. His grandfather followed the same mould, and later relocated to Singapore. “The saying (that a family’s wealth will not surpass three generations) is unfortunately true and it happened to my family,â€ Kenny shared ruefully. His father was a taxi driver.
Kenny shared that he had studied accountancy, but had dropped out of school. Instead he worked in Borders, totally immersed in a book environment, and where he learnt about book retailing. When they were dating, Kenny and Karen always talked about how they could do things better if they ran their own book business. Finally they decided to take the plunge, and that’s how Books Actually started.
They took out an initial capital of $20,000 – financed by savings and a generous family loan – and spent it totally on stock. “Books are expensive. It’s a barrier of entry for people who want to enter the book business,” Kenny said. They started off selling their books in school fairs. They would get some bench space in schools, polytechnics and universities – the arts canteen in National University of Singapore (NUS) was a regular spot – and laid out their books to sell.
Even during the business’ fledgling stage, Kenny and Karen were conscious of branding. “We made sure we had a proper logo and our name cards ready,” Kenny said. “All the designs are done in-house by Karen,” he declared proudly, casting a sidelong glance at his shyer partner. The name cards she designed are amongst the most unique I’ve seen.
By November 2005, they decided to get a retail space and settled on its current location. They took out another $25,000, most of which was spent on rental. “The three months deposit was a killer,” Kenny complained. They did most of the renovations themselves. Money was extremely tight. By the time they started business in the store, they only had $367 in the bank! The pair painfully forked out $500 for a NETS machine, but to date does not have a credit card machine.
“It was very tough. We’re capitalists. We’re both impatient in terms of sales and often desire to close a transaction with a customer as fast as possible,” Kenny confides, “but we also want to be fair to the customer.”
Customers browsing at the shelves.
A Bookseller’s Integrity
Their product knowledge is astounding, but for one reason – they only sell the things that they themselves like and will consume. “There needs to be integrity in business,” Karen spoke up. “There’re so many things to sell, so we chose to concentrate on selling the things we believe in.”
“We won’t sell calculators, for example,” Kenny chirped.
Books Actually is the sole distributor for Grid-It! Notepads in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Kenny admits that the designer notepads will never be runaway best-sellers due mainly to their high prices, but he believes in them. “Every designer works with grids, and the notepads teach this fundamental system to designers.”
So what sells best in Books Actually?
“Almost everything,” Kenny grins. “It’s strange, but our business model doesn’t conform to anything that I learnt in accountancy. There is no fixed pattern. One week we can sell 10 Moleskine notepads, but the next week we may not sell any!” Last year they grossed about $45,000 in sales.
What has been the biggest mistake they’ve made in their entrepreneurial journey so far?
“The Internet,” Both chime in unison.
“We are currently paying $160 a month for Singtel broadband,” Kenny groused. “And we’re locked in a contract for three years. Starhub said they didn’t cover this area, but we didn’t know that there were independent providers who can provide the service for far cheaper.”
“We’re paying a high price for that.”
Karen and Kenny don’t intend to sit on their laurels, and have very immediate plans for Books Actually. They will be starting a new line of in-house products called Birds & Company, capitalising on Karen’s design skills. They are also exploring small press publishing, producing books with print runs of less than 400 copies.
“Most small scale publishing in Singapore nowadays is vanity press,” Kenny sighed, referring to authors who pay to publish their own works. “A lot of them are published by professionals like lawyers or accountants who are rich and fancy themselves as writers. Their works don’t undergo strict formal editing, and it’s a shame when they get marketed as our nation’s best.”
Books Actually holds many literary events, such as book launches and poetry readings, free for authors and poets. They have a tie-up with artists from Substation to highlight the creative and literary scene in Singapore. For a small bookstore, their sense of social responsibility is a surprise.
“It’s more work and more nightmares,” Kenny laughed. “But I’m still paying rental anyway, so why not? You earn, you give back. We also learn more.”
“In a less altruistic way, holding events means we get more people, traffic and awareness as well.”
“We’re most happy when we see people like what they see and come back.” For sure, they make friends easily. In fact, a friend – and customer – is seated on the floor in the corner of the store helping unpack some books.
Well I like what I see, and will most definitely be back.
If you read this and decide to visit Books Actually, be sure to mention to Karen and Kenny you found out about them here.