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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

BooksActually: Feature x Interview x Pictures

Note: This is a feature article I wrote for Mynewsdesk, so it first appeared here. I removed/edited some parts for my blog.

*Photos are taken and edited by me*

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Nestled amongst the mishmash of old and new in Tiong Bahru Estate, one of Singapore’s oldest estates, lies the charmingly quaint bookstore – BooksActually.

Lined with splashes of potted greenery and rustic timber planks, the entrance of the store is a pretty sight to behold. As you look through those double glass doors, the store’s interior beckons. Warmly lit, this bookstore is a book lover’s heaven – one can revel in the crisp aroma, and sight of the books lining the shelves and neatly stacked in piles.

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BooksActually is hardly your typical bookstore; it is definitely more than that. Over the years, the humble bookstore has built a community of fans and lovers of literature. They make an effort to foster the local literature community further by organizing book launches and readings. The relationship they have with each customer also goes beyond the transaction counter, what they have is something more intimate; to put it simply, each customer embarks (or continues) their literary journey together with BooksActually. And for some others, it was the place where love transpired (we have one to share in the later paragraphs!)

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Founded by Kenny Leck in 2005, this local indie bookstore specializes in Fiction and Literature; this includes poetry, essays, literary journals alongside obscure, critical works and antique/rare editions. BooksActually not only stock titles from a wide variety of subjects – such as History, Human Sciences, Travel Narrative, Aesthetics and more – they also distribute literary works under the imprint, Math Paper Press, and stationery under Birds & Co.

With an inclination towards entrepreneurship at the tender age of 14-15, although without a concrete business idea in mind then, circumstances in life eventually steered Kenny towards the conception of BooksActually – he withdrew from his Diploma in Accountancy after the second year and applied successfully to NAFA to pursue Visual Communications (what he always wanted to study). Although National Service (NS) later derailed that plan, looking back, it indirectly nudged Kenny into the books business.

His first foray into the books business was at the now defunct Tower Books/Records before enlisting into NS.

“Part of how BooksActually looks and feels like now is actually inspired from there,” said Kenny as he adds on in fond memory of the place, “It’s a very liberal place. It’s also the only local bookstore that supports local literature, and by local I really mean the local folk like you and me. They accept manuscript submissions from anyone. They even had a section for gay books, and called it gender studies.”

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Books called out to him once again after completing NS. This time it was a more than 2-year stint at Borders, and that sealed it in for him – books business is the way to go.

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The Conception
Before BooksActually had an actual store, they started off by selling books at bazaars, which usually took place in schools. 7 months later, with a profit of about $3,000 and a $20,000 family loan, they finally got themselves a physical retail space at Telok Ayer Street (where the store was first located). But, it hasn’t always been an uphill journey for them since they begun. During the business’ fledgling state, said Kenny: “We’ve had days where there were zero sales and that really is a very demoralizing feeling”.

Despite numerous challenges thrown towards them along the way, their passionate love for books kept them going.

8 years later, they’re now situated at Yong Siak Street, right in the heart of Singapore’s hipster suburb.

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Meet Kenny (Owner), Renée (Bookstore Manager) and Fairuz (Marketing Manager) to find out a little more about the people who make up part of BooksActually.

Kenny (Owner)
Did you know that BooksActually also has a section dedicated to vintage items? (and yes, they are for sale too!) They are all sourced locally and lovingly handpicked. 

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“I’m a hoarder and if I can make money out of hoarding, why not?” chuckled Kenny. To him, “vintage junkie” is just a nicer term for hoarder. “I think the vintage section also forms a collective memory/culture from our parents/grandparents’ time,” he adds.

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Favourite book: 
The Lao Fu Zi series

Favourite place in Tiong Bahru Estate:
The recently closed “Hua Bee” coffeeshop for its very authentic, old setting. It had really good coffee and fishball noodles. (They would also have it for breakfast almost everyday.)


Renée (Bookstore Manager)
The store’s resident playlist curator, the store has heard artists such as Vampire Weekend, Foster The People and Imagine Dragons. One of the things that strike you about Renée are her tattoos; they give you a glimpse of the things in her life that mean something special to her.

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Favourite Author:
George Orwell. 1984 struck me the most because I read it when I was going through a certain period in my life, and I could really relate to it.

Favourite place in Tiong Bahru Estate:
The field down the road from BooksActually.


Fairuz (Marketing Manager)
From a part-time staff to a full-time staff, Fairuz thought she wouldn’t be able to get the job after attending the job interview. “I said I’d recommend Fifty Shades of Grey when Renée asked what book I would recommend. But I haven’t even read the book!” she gushed.

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Favourite Book:
Norwegian Wood. It was a book I found hard to put down.

Favouite place in Tiong Bahru Estate:
BooksActually (Awwwww)


P.S: You can read the "little BooksActually love story" that was mentioned over at Mynewsdesk here.

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