The king of the book geeks

Kenny Leck of Singaporean independent bookstore BooksActually lives and breathes books. – Picture by Renée Ting
Kenny Leck of Singaporean independent bookstore BooksActually lives and breathes books. – Picture by Renée Ting

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 29 -- Kenny Leck of Singaporean independent bookstore BooksActually lives and breathes books. A self-confessed book geek, he dropped out of polytechnic to work at Tower Books and then Borders before setting up BooksActually in 2005.

Today, Leck’s little-bookstore-that-could is the trendiest hangout spot on the island for his fellow book geeks. The passionate bookseller even set up his own small imprint, Math Paper Press, to publish authentic Singaporean voices.

Recently BooksActually has been crossing the Causeway by participating in Malaysian events such as the George Town Festival 2013. International notice came in the form of Monocle setting up its pop-up Seasonal Shop inside BooksActually as part of the magazine’s Asia Pacific Tour 2013.

Tell us more about the books available at BooksActually.

I personally curate all the titles we carry. The logic is simple: in midst of all that marketing spin, we create genuine sales by only carrying what we will buy, books that we are willing to part with our own hard-earned money for.

For our Math Paper Press line-up, we look at selecting titles or authors that can help us document all the Singaporean stories that are floating out there. By preserving them as physical prints, we leave a point of reference for future generations.

We also publish titles by non-Singaporean authors. A few of them include Onkalo by Bernice Chauly (Malaysia), The Pillow Book by Koh Jee Leong (USA), A Place on Earth by Tracey Sullivan (New Zealand), and The Promise Bird by Zhang Yueran (China).

How have Singaporean (and Malaysian) readers responded to these local titles and authors?

Thus far, the reception has been really great. From their emails, we have learned that the response has been overwhelming, and that can be best attested to by the healthy sales of their titles.

In fact, two of the Math Paper Press authors, Verena Tay and Cyril Wong, were up in George Town earlier this year as part of the Causeway Exchange Literary programme. My take on the literary scene in Singapore and Malaysia is that we are peas in the same pod. We just need to work harder to nourish the peas so that the pod will ripen.

What readers really want in a bookstore and their choice of titles is to be wowed. They want to know that their purchases are worth the money that they have spent. It is not wrong to say that with every book we read, we want to learn something new so that our lives can be made better, and hopefully change for the greater good of our own well-being.

You work a lot with local authors, translators and book designers. How has the experience been?

Every pot of curry has its own quirks. We approach each author and translator as an experience to hopefully cherish, and in the bigger picture, to work with on a long-term basis.

For Math Paper Press titles, we work closely with the design outfit Sarah and Schooling. Our shared approach to book design, in particular jacket design, is that it has to truly reflect the content. We don’t believe in design just for the sake of design.

What is the current state of the book industry?

With the closure of larger chain bookstores such as Borders, the remaining bookstores have to become more vigilant in their bookselling activities. This means smarter product placements and less reliance on bestsellers. Above all, booksellers must be willing to support local authors.

Readers also play a part. These days, instead of reading, we are playing Candy Crush on our smartphones.

There is instant gratification from the latter while the former requires time. After all, not everyone has the ability to speed-read.

Therefore, the biggest threat the book industry is facing right now is the lack of readers through the slow death of the reading habit. We need to reverse this!

Share with us a few of your favourite books.

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is a book that makes you instantly question yourself: what is the reason for being, and why should one exist? This is from the first chapter of the book! It does help put things into perspective in our fast-driven pace of life.

Stephen King’s On Writing is more than a book on writing. It is a book of being human, and how working on being human is a never-ending journey.

Lastly, I appreciate Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. In the form of Howard Roark, we find the being of objectivity, or should I say, an individual that puts everything in the big picture of things whether he hurts or helps the people around him. We need some of that objectivity in humanity.

No. 9 Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bahru, Singapore 168645
Open 11am-9pm daily; Sun-Mon closed at 6pm
Tel: +65-6222-9195

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on November 28, 2013