One Small Voice: KENNY LECK

Published on 28 October 2014

Singaporeans don’t read? Bookstore owner Kenny Leck disagrees.

When we opened a bookstore in 2005, we were plain naïve. We assumed that if we sold good stuff, people would hear about it and come all the way to look for us. Like how Singaporeans are with food.

Our first store was a second-storey unit at Telok Ayer Street, and it was damn hard to make people come upstairs! But those two years taught us one thing: To survive, we need to have good programming to spread the word.

Let’s say you’re an author and you have a book launch at BooksActually. You’ll invite your friends, and they will make a conscious effort to come. If they’ve never been here before, they will find out how – whether by car, bus or train. So events force them to be familiar with our name and location.

The truth is, our book sales are doing well. So it’s mind-boggling to me when people say bookstores are dying because Singaporeans don’t read anymore. Actually, statistics from the Ministry of Trade and Industry show that Singapore is still a nation of readers.

The killer is rent. It’s not just bookstores that are closing down, cafés and retail stores are too. With our second store at Ann Siang, the landlord raised our monthly rent from $7,000 to $9,000. At Club Street, it went up from $9,000 to $12,000. And at our current Tiong Bahru location, rent has jumped from $3,800 to $8,000 in two years!

For a small indie bookstore like ours, overheads matter a lot. So our next step is to buy our own property. If we have to pay every month, I’d rather be paying mortgage than rent.

But survival challenges us to think out-of-the-box: Like all the books you see at BooksActually are already bought by us. There is nothing on consignment here. So when you know you can’t return what you don’t sell, you are forced to sell.

And we have consistently carried local titles. For the longest time, there’s been a stigma attached to local books. But because we’ve already bought them, we have to display them, create awareness for them, and make sure they move!

And that’s important because lately, we’ve seen an explosion of Singapore Literature. We’ve not had such a vibrant Sing Lit scene for a long time. And we’re talking new genres too, like sci-fi (or speculative fiction), graphic novels and comics.

I believe that if Singaporeans are exposed to local writers, at some point they will be curious enough to pick up a book and read it. And if the content is decent, it will lower their barriers.

People also ask me if I feel threatened by Amazon and Kindle. I actually think it’s good for us. Singapore has one of the highest rates of technology adoption. Does this mean that suddenly, 4 million people have access to a digital book? That’s exciting because it means they will devote more behavioural time to read!

Having said that, we have also evolved our business to include corporate sales, a webstore (which currently carries 200 titles), and a publishing arm called Math Paper Press.

To me, books will never die. Humans are tactile, so there will always be those who love real books. I love selling books because I believe they open the mind to possibilities, to empathy, and inspire you to be a better person. So I will make sure that even after I’m long gone, my bookstore will stick around.

To find out more about Leck’s indie bookstore, visit BooksActually.com.

KENNY LECK is the co-founder of BooksActually, an independent literary bookstore. He also helms the publishing imprint Math Paper Press, and the handmade stationery line, Birds & Co. Artist and collector, his most characteristic art works are boxed assemblages created from found objects.

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