Time Out Singapore: BooksActually Turns Ten

17 Nov 2015: Established in 2005, BooksActually has become something of an institution for book lovers in Singapore, giving local writers, artists, designers, independent publishers – and three super cute cats – a place to call home. Things haven’t always been easy for founder Kenny Leck and his dedicated team, but as the bookstore celebrates its tenth anniversary this month with an exhibition at The Substation, we get Leck to reflect on how far they’ve come.

Books Actually

1) Leck started BooksActually for, unsurprisingly, the love of books: ‘Well, mostly. It was a combination of wanting to set up a business and growing up reading too many books. Couple that with a few years of experience working in a bookstore, and it led to BooksActually.’

2) There have been plenty of memorable moments at the store, but the one that stands out is:‘When we still get at least one or two customers who walk one round in the bookstore, and then ask, “What are you selling?” It sounds hilarious but on the flip side it also shows how unbelievable our book culture, and the existence of bookstores, is in Singapore.’

3) The most important lesson he’s learnt is: ‘To not become big-headed no matter how successful we are. Also, the learning never ends.’

4) He hasn’t been drawing a salary for ten years: ‘[I live on] an allowance. Basically, my meals and transport expenses are all paid for by the bookstore. So this is like schooling days when my mum will give me just about enough to cover the meals that I had at recess!’

5) He thinks the local literary scene is heading in the right direction: ‘It has certainly progressed in leaps and bounds in the past decade. There is a sense of urgency, and a sense that we need it. It is no longer an afterthought. But until the day bookstores become a common business that folks want to set up – like the multitude of cafés – can I say that we’ve reached our proudest moment.’

6) If he could change one thing about the literary scene here, it would be: ‘The crutch – the reliance on state funding. Independence does not mean anti-censorship; it means sustainability. The latter is the driving force and the nurturing “soil” for Singapore literary arts to grow.’

7) The exhibition at The Substation is a re-creation of the ten-year journey of BooksActually: ‘You will see pictures of the four different locations that we were at. Almost every single artefact that we are exhibiting will be made for sale. My wish is for everyone to own a “piece” of BooksActually regardless of what happens next – all retail concepts, and its owner, have finite life cycle. So in this sense, I can be assured that everyone will have a physical memory of the bookstore to hold on to.’

8) Looking ahead, the future for him is still books (phew!): ‘It has always been the same. To get a book into each and everyone’s hands.’

9) Each night, he goes to sleep happy that: ‘My cats are all fed, litter-box cleaned, safe, and guarding the bookstore.’

10) And if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to co-own BooksActually with three cats – Cake, Pico and Lemon: ‘You mean: they own it. Co-owning is a foreign concept for them. But they do bring a light to our bookselling lives every day!’

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