“Keep walking, always keep on walking.”
Co-founder of BooksActually, founder of Birds & Co. and Math Paper Press.
Tucked away in a corner of Yong Siak Street is BooksActually: a quaint, homey bookstore filled with good literature actually worth reading and unique, handmade stationeries designed to improve your reading experience. Each and every book that makes it to the shelves is handpicked by Kenny, and that is what sets BooksActually apart from its more commercialised counterparts. One would never have guessed from his slightly beng-ish demeanour that this man is a book nerd through and through – and so the phrase, “never judge a book by its cover”, comes to mind. On top of being a full-time bookseller, he plays a dual role as a garang guni, collecting antiques that were once a part of Singaporean’s now-disappearing heritage: from old porcelain plates to sturdy wooden chairs, from ancient Polaroid cameras to older generations of Nintendo. A modern extension of his strong sense of social responsibility comes in the form of a publishing press. Kenny actively uncovers new and upcoming local talents and gives them the opportunity to become published authors through the Math Paper Press. Running an independent business is no easy feat; having changed locations three times over a span of seven years, the survival of the bookstore remains an ongoing battle. But for BooksActually to have survived all these years and even branched out to include a publishing press and stationery brand speaks volumes about Kenny’s tenacity and never-say-die attitude.
Tell us about BooksActually.
Before we opened a brick-and-mortar store in October 2005, we started out at book bazaars in the NUS Faculty of Arts and Sciences. We did that for 7 months, even though it was totally unexpected that we’d survive that long. In these 7 months, we also had book bazaars in Republic Poly and a flea market in Clarke Quay. By then, we had already established some sort of brand identity, and we were trying to figure out our eventual goal of having a store. And to have a store means that you’d want to have a brand name, and other basic things like brand colour, name cards, packaging, and so on. During that time, we were also looking for retail space. We knew we couldn’t afford the rent at Ann Siang or Club Street, so on days when we had no book bazaars we’d be walking around the neighbouring streets. We wanted to open a store at those places because they were where the retailers were. You had people like Asylum, Style Nordic, Front Row. After Ann Siang Road we went to Amoy Street and after Amoy Street it was Telok Ayer Street, and that’s where we discovered a second floor unit. It was actually managed by an agent who showed us a unit at Ann Siang, so we gave her a call. It turned out the rent was $ 1600; we took it up, and that’s how the store started. Why books? BooksActually was originally founded by both Karen and I, but she left the business in August 2011. I grew up with a lot of books, so it was almost natural progression. At around 14 I knew I wanted to do business, but I had no idea what kind of business I wanted to do so it could have been anything. I dropped out of Poly and applied for a job at Tower Books. Back then, it was one of the first major bookstore chains in Singapore. I didn’t have a very enjoyable experience working there, but it was the only job I wanted to apply for because I grew up with too many books. Before I dropped out I was studying Accountancy and Taxation in Nanyang Poly but I really wanted to do Visual Communications at NAFA. I applied and got in, but NS came calling and I couldn’t defer it anymore. Less than two weeks after NS I landed a job at Borders, so I stuck it out at Borders for two and a half years. My work experience meant that I knew where to get the books. Back then we didn’t have Facebook. We had Friendster and emails, so we started selling books online via word-of-mouth. But that was on a very miniscule scale; we’re talking about no more than a couple of books a month. Then opportunity came knocking and we got to do book bazaars at NUS – that’s when we kick-started everything and eventually opened the store.
Where do you think BooksActually fits in amongst huge chains like Tower Books and Borders?
Borders is your huge retail chain that sells everything that is commercialized. They tried to bring in the odd titles for sure, but the emphasis was still on commercial titles, because that was how the business was run lah. But Tower Books was different; it had mass appeal back then because it was the first major bookstore chain. Back then the only bookstore chain was Popular bookstore – which really should be called Popular Assessment bookstore – so Tower Books was the only place that carried very varied books. Even before I worked there I remember buying books there. I bought William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and I was like, what the hell is this book man? Are you sure you can sell this kind of books in Singapore? So it definitely had a certain impact on me, and it made me realize that certain books should be read as early as possible. If a customer in his 30s or his 40s wants to buy The Catcher in the Rye, I’d think, what’s the point man? You’re not going to get anything much from it besides maybe enjoying the book. Read it when you’re 14, then that’s different. Try to read books as early as possible. And I think bookstalls, and I, have that role. I remember reading books I shouldn’t be reading when I was 14 or 15 – books that my mom wouldn’t allow me to read for sure, but it hasn’t done me too much harm I guess. It’s up to your personal values lah, but books offer you broader perspectives. That’s what Tower Books gave me. What Borders taught me was how to make money out of it. So BooksActually is almost like a combination of the two.
People sometimes have this notion that books are very atas especially it comes to titles that are a little bit more subversive. What do you have to say about that?
Actually, the subversive titles are not atas leh. I think it’s the owners who make it atas, or the character of the owner or the counter staff and the whole attitude of the place that make it atas. I mean, if the music I’m playing now is soft classical music, it’ll have the effect of making it atas right. I think for me, I should be playing and doing what I enjoy lah. I don’t need my staff to wear uniforms; I dress perennially like this (in tee-shirts and three-quarter pants), so the idea of having a bookstore… I can’t even say it’s a second home, because it’s like a home to me. If it’s my home that means I’ve to be comfortable in it right? That is why many of my own things are here too; even my cats are here. So when my customers come in I hope they don’t think that it’s atas lah. I mean they might feel a bit foreign because not everybody is going to take to books unless you grew up with it, but we try to make it more comfortable for customers, you know; books are not that scary after all and you can actually have fun also lah.
How do you choose your books?
As subversive as possible. (laughs) No lah! We try to avoid the very commercialised titles. The first two years we didn’t have enough experience so we had many commercial titles (even chic-flicks!) but as we progressed we try to bring in as many esoteric titles as possible: small publishers, mid-range publishers, the backlist, from local authors, even famous authors like George Orwell’s 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London and his collected essays. It’s all the weirder stuff that people will buy, those that aren’t so prominently displayed in normal bookstores, but I don’t see why not. But over the years we say, hey, we can’t derive enough income from these esoteric titles, so we have to bring in some popular titles that we’re still okay with… actually, I can’t find anything here that will sell well. But sometimes we really gotta try bringing in something that sells well so that we can churn out the cash flow to do other things. Right now we’ve this book called The Happiness Project that is everywhere in the stores now, but it’s a book that won’t make you want to kill yourself lah. If you decide to take up a happiness project, your friends will actually love you more, we might end up having a better world and at the same time I can make money out of it! So why not? I also sell this non-fiction business book called The Decision Book, which showcases different decision-making processes and helps you with your life. So why not? There’re certain things that we have to balance, but we’ll always try to avoid The Hunger Games, basically the bestsellers luh.
What is one thing you didn’t expect?
All this (waves around at his collection of antique that surrounded us). I know I collect and hoard things since I was a kid, but there are reasons why I’m doing this, one obviously because there is money to be made out of it. Books that are on the uppermost shelves are my own books, and things that are displayed at the front of the counter are things that I’ve hoarded over the years. But customers will ask, are they for sale? Then I realized, hey, this means there’s money to be made out of it lah. The second thing we realized after we moved here, and it’s something we should have realized long ago –a lot of things are disappearing. I don’t have the ability to conserve buildings, bridges, monuments and neither would the government allow that. But through selling all these things and trying to keep some of them, we might be able to conserve these little things. By selling them, they go home with you and hopefully they stay with you for quite a while more lah – 10 years, 20 years, rather than being thrown away immediately. There’s still a second, third life for them.
I was going to ask you what your biggest challenge is, but I will hazard a guess, it’s probably rent.
Yes, rent has always been an issue. Sometimes we wish we had more experience before starting the business to prevent the same problems from recurring. This is our fourth location, and we managed to save ourselves by paying off the deposit to stay for two more years – it will be the first time we’re in one location for four years. The only way to remedy this is to buy a property; I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s crazy lah. This one floor alone is around $3m. The bank will be more than happy to lend me up to a maximum of 80% of $3m, but I need to fork out another 20% in cash and that’s $600,000. I have difficulties raising $16,000 in 4 days, so $600,000 is a bit tricky. Or we could go find another ulu space, but property prices in Singapore is at least $1m, so we still have to fork out $200,000. It’s not impossible, but it’s something we’re still trying to work towards lah.
You mentioned previously that you dropped out of Poly, was it a choice, or?
Choice. I’m a very time sensitive person. I strongly believe that time is finite. Back then I wasn’t as obsessed with it, but I knew that I didn’t like to waste time. It’s quite ironic, because I’m also a very lazy person. I’m the type who can sit there and read and do nothing. I was from the Normal stream, so I had to do 5 years for O levels. After 5 years I was already 17. I got into poly, and my results were good enough for me to do Visual Communications at Temasek Poly, which was something I wanted to do. But my parents couldn’t afford for me to do what I like, so choosing my poly modules was quite clear cut: since I couldn’t do Visual Comms, I’d do business since I already knew I wanted to do business anyway. So I got into Accounting and Taxation at Nanyang Poly. After two years, a lot of things changed in the family. The burden lifted and I didn’t need to make sure that I got a well paying job after NS, so I could study what I wanted. I already completed 4 semesters and had 2 more to go before I got my diploma. I even finished my work attachment so basically I just had to get through two semesters to get my diploma. But I didn’t want to waste time. Look, I’m a guy. I do NS. Back then, if you’re a JC or diploma holder you do 2.5 years, whereas if you’re O level and below, you only do 2 years. And I said, look, I’ve already spent an extra year at O levels, and if I spend another year at poly, that makes 2 years. If I get my diploma, it’ll be an extra half a year in NS so they add up to 2.5 years! I didn’t want to spend another 2.5 years doing all that before going on to study what I like, which will take me another 3 years! So I said, no way man, just fuck it lah. Many people couldn’t understand why I did that, but I don’t see it as silly; I still think it’s the best decision I made. My Dad was very supportive of it so it helped, or rather he couldn’t do much about it.
Even now, people have this belief that if you don’t finish school, if you don’t get your diploma, you won’t get a job. How did you overcome this uncertainty?
For me, earning money is not difficult; it’s a matter of whether you’re willing to work at it. If you can study so hard to get good grades, first class honours and so on, you can do whatever you want if you put that into your work. As long as you don’t screw up too much, you should be able to do quite well. It’s within our reach. You have seven days a week, I have seven days a week; I have twenty-four hours, and you have twenty-four hours as well. Two eyes, two ears, one mouth, one brain, most of our IQs are about the same. Maybe not that high for me; when you’re old your brain gets degraded. It’s difficult but it’s also not that difficult at the same time if you put your mind to it. It really comes down to mindset. I mean, it might be difficult, but time continues to flow. This means no matter how shitty the day is, as long as nobody dies in the process, it’s still going to pass. But there’s also a downside: since time is always flowing, that means time is finite. I’m turning 35 this year, but I’m not going to be 35 forever. We have no idea how long we’ll live, and I’m not saying it just for the sake of saying it nor did I get it off some self-help book. But that’s what self-help books say right? Fuck. But that’s true lah, time is really damn finite. If you don’t start doing the things you want to do now, you’ll never get around to doing it. Don’t just tell yourself that I’m young now, I’ve not entered the work industry so I should enjoy as much as possible. Why not enjoy as much as you can and have the best time of your life even after you start working? Life starts when you learn to think for yourself. There’re sad stuff, there’re very challenging stuff, and there’re days where it’s just, wow, shit. But life is like that lah.
What’s your biggest screw up in life?
I didn’t start young enough. Not starting young enough means that I didn’t get the chance to experience enough disappointments. Experiencing more mistakes and more disappointments means that you should learn from it, and starting younger means that you’ll know more people. I guess when you do business, it also comes down to how many people you know. Not to say that you’ve to make use of everyone you know, but it’s a community; if I help you now, you’ll definitely help me back, I’m sure. Yeah, so to me that’s my biggest screw up – not starting young enough and wasting too much time. I could have done a lot during the 2 years in NS.
Any advice for young people out there?
I know this whole experimenting, setting up a business, pursuing your own dreams sounds damn fantastic, and obviously there will be a lot of difficulties along the way, but the most important thing I want to highlight is: if you want to set something up then you jolly well be prepared to do it for the rest of your life. If you decide to set something up, you’re literally decreasing your lifespan because you’ll vomit a lot of blood trying to make things work, so you might as well, you know, be sure about it. Don’t go in telling yourself that I’ll do it for two years, and if it doesn’t work out I’m going back to my day job because you would have wasted 24 months of your life and you’re never getting it back. You might not be sure about how it’ll work out or whether it’ll succeed, but if you know you want to do something, then somehow or rather just make it work lah. Die die make it work. Don’t plan to fail, but also don’t be too optimistic and think that you’re going to freaking succeed. It might not work all the time, but something is going to work. Life is pretty fair that way.
– Profiled by Amanda Chan