Anatomy of a bookshop

Pictures by CK Lim
Pictures by CK Lim

SINGAPORE, Sept 7 — Tiong Bahru’s BooksActually is the model of a fiercely independent neighbourhood bookshop. Founded in 2005 by local book lover Kenny Leck, who had worked at larger bookstore chains such as Borders, the tiny shop is crammed from floor to ceiling with titles he personally curates. He also set up Math Paper Press, a small press publisher of works of new and up-and-coming Singaporean authors, to support local writing.

Running a small business is never easy but Leck is as passionate as ever. He is currently trying to secure a commercial property for the bookstore instead of renting. “This is to circumvent the increasing rental issues that have caused us to move four times over the past eight years.  We are simply biting the bullet so to speak, since raising money for the downpayment with this sort of exuberant property market is going to be insane.”

One of the ways Leck hopes to raise funds is through sales. This is in addition to BooksActually running various activities such as author readings, pop-ups offering affordably-priced second-hand books, 24-hour bookstore events and more.

1. Journal
Leck keeps track of everything in his trusty hardcover journal, its pages filled with a mix of both personal and work notes. He says, “I use a Moleskine Daily Planner as I’m used to its format. I’ve been using the same brand for the past eight years. In fact, I never had a planner in my life until the bookstore started.”

2. Mobile phone
While certainly not a Luddite with BooksActually’s savvy web and social media presence, Leck prefers an ordinary mobile phone without data connectivity. He explains, “I’m very connected on the online sphere. Honestly, I spend so much time in front of my desktop and laptop that I think that is all the screen time I need.  To have a smartphone would mean clocking in more hours online.”
Hence an old-school Nokia phone is more than enough for Leck. He adds, “I take the taxi quite frequently due to external meetings. Without a smartphone, the taxi ride is a perfect down time for me to think of decisions made or to be made.”

3. Penknife
Another thing that Leck always carries with him is a penknife to cut open boxes of books when they are delivered. He explains, “A good part of my time at Borders was spent in the Inventory Department and we’d deal with shipments daily, hence the need to have a penknife handy.”
Another legacy habit from Leck’s former workplace is wearing Bermuda shorts. He says, “The place where we received large shipments of over 100 cartons per trip was hot and stuffy. Less than a week in, I decided that jeans was out, and Bermuda shorts were in.  They have since become a sort of uniform for me and stayed so ever since.”

4. BooksActually name card
If Leck hands you his name card, you may observe that it looks like something you might find in a library drawer. He shares, “Our old partner in the bookstore, Karen Wai, was the designer for the name cards. We wanted it to look like a page or frontispiece from an old book.”

5. Canned tea
Leck always has a carton of canned Chinese tea in the bookstore. Admitting he’s far from a connoisseur of fine Oriental cha, he says, “It is actually just the caffeine that I need but I don’t like the idea of drinking too much coffee. The maximum number of cups of coffee that I consume daily is two.  So I supplement the caffeine intake with sugarless Oolong Cha. I don’t like chilled drinks so I just drink it straight from the can at room temperature.”

6. Book: Straw, Sticks, Brick by Cyril Wong
One of Leck’s favourite books is Straw, Sticks, Brick, a collection of poetry by Cyril Wong, though he wasn’t very fond of it at first. “I have known Cyril since the first year BooksActually started operations. That is more than eight years! Later we worked together as publisher and author. However, I didn’t appreciate Straw, Sticks, Brick initially due to the difference in poetic style. Cyril is well-known as a confessional poet but this collection was the total opposite. It required multiple readings as they needed thinking and reflection.
“I rediscovered this volume earlier this year when I featured one of the poems on social media. I had to type the text, as though I was writing the poem, as opposed to just reading it. It was then that I realised what Cyril was trying to convey. It is still confessional in nature, but with added layers that require one to peel away the way you do with an onion. Peel it layer by layer, and before you know it, you will be crying from the poems’ depth the same way an onion can affect you.”

7. Cats!
Customers might think that Leck is more of a cat person than a dog person given the number of feline friends in the bookstore. (He has three: Cake, Pico and Lemon.) However, he is a true animal lover and adores all creatures, even the ones his staff are less than enthusiastic about.
He explains, “My staff can’t stand it when I actually pick up creepy crawlies from my plants or from the shop floor. I think I was brought up to not be afraid of insects, and everything else. Spending time with animals is always very relaxing for me.”

8. Poem: Period by Tan Lixin
While browsing the shelves at BooksActually, you may notice A4-sized printouts of poems hanging from the ceiling. The verse as art installation is the idea of two young poets published by Math Paper Press, Jollin Tan, and Tan Lixin. The latter’s poem titled Period is Leck’s favourite.
He says, “Both Jollin and Lixin are still undergraduates at the moment. The use of the red thread to spell out the title of the poems was their idea too. I was merely the ‘contractor’ who helped them in putting the pieces up.”

9. His second-in-command and better half, Renée Ting
Omnipresent store manager Renée Ting isn’t only responsible for the smooth operations of BooksActually; she is also Kenny Leck’s girlfriend. Leck recalls, “She applied for a job here, and I did the unthinkable thing -– I started dating one of my staff!”
While juggling both a professional and personal relationship can be challenging, the two lovebirds seem take it in their stride. Leck says, “Now the bookstore is our life, and this will go on until we eventually pass on. Of course, we have not taken a proper off day for at least four years, and I think it would stay the same until at least 2015.”
Now that is real passion.

9 Yong Siak St, Tiong Bahru, Singapore 168645
Tel: +65-6222-9195
Open Tue-Sat 11:00am – 9:00pm; Sun-Mon 11:00am – 6:00pm

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