Kenny Leck: The Pragmatic Dreamer
Pico, one of BooksActually’s three resident felines, wanders into the room midway through our conversation and attempts to burrow her way into my handbag. Kenny Leck swiftly prevents the invasion, scoops the furry creature up into his arms, and allows her to rest in the crook of his elbow, where she remains. It’s an endearing image of a man who has a reputation for being competitive, headstrong, and always ready to express his uncensored opinions should the situation call for it—often even when it doesn’t. Facebook is one avenue where he channels this exuberance. There’s the odd Bible passage, heaps of cat videos, and quotes by the likes of Milan Kundera and Fred D'Aguiar. And then there’s this: “Grow a spine, my dear distributor. Even my dead mother can do a better job than you.” He also takes jabs at traditional Asian family values, those who sweat the small stuff, and squashes common misconceptions: “Have seen kids armed with GP who can’t tell the difference whether [the] Bay of Pigs is a holiday resort or a farm,” he writes. “P.S. It is neither.” Despite this, he’s far from a mouth-running renegade, thoughtfully dishing out business lessons, consumer trends, and musings about our common mortality. “It’s odd when we see media outlets pin the blame for bookstore closures on e-readers,” he says. “That’s not looking deep enough. I think Borders just forgot to be booksellers first and foremost.” As the gatekeeper of Singapore’s independent literary scene, Kenny cuts a far-from-imposing figure, but his petite frame belies a battle-hardened underbelly. After all, it takes a dogged sense of determination to grow your business from a makeshift pop-up venture at university book fairs into Singapore’s preeminent indie bookstore, not to mention keeping it alive while others have been shuttering left, right, and centre. All the more impressive is that he’s run the business on his own dime since day one. No wonder he dishes out harsh words for entrepreneurs who can’t ‘tough it out’. “I’ve taken one vacation in the past ten years,” Kenny says, referring to a trip he made last July when he also spoke at the Bangkok Book Festival. “When I do have one, it has to serve a purpose.” The school drop-out, who had been told his future was ‘doomed’, gripes that Singaporeans allow their fear of failure to dictate their lives. “I know a bunch of people who’ve started a business with the mindset of just trying it out for a couple of years,” he says. “If it doesn’t work out, they can fall back on their corporate jobs.” He takes a pause, as if silently acknowledging that unlike them, he did not have such a backup. “Time is finite. Life is finite. Why bother if you’re just going to give up after awhile?”
RACHEL EVA LIM: Seeing as BooksActually just celebrated its tenth anniversary last November, can you give me a brief history?
KENNY LECK: Sure. We’re a homegrown bookstore founded in 2005 by Karen Wai and myself. Karen left around six years ago and now I run the bookstore with my store manager and partner, Renée Ting. We’ve always done things on our own dime and under our own steam. We’ve survived a few scares along the way, as I guess most businesses do. To be honest, I think a lot of people are curious as to why we’re still around.
RACHEL: Tons of the bigger bookstores have been shuttering their outlets.
KENNY: Definitely. A lot of the bigger ones in the States are closing.
RACHEL: But Amazon Books just opened a bookstore in Seattle.
KENNY: Yeah, that’s weird. Why do they want to get themselves into that? There’s so much pain that comes with running a bookstore! [laughs] We’ve always focused on Singaporean literature—whether it’s prose or poetry, established or younger writers. Somewhere during the midpoint of running a bookstore we decided to go into publishing, and that grew into Math Paper Press. We’ve never looked back since.
RACHEL: This is your third location?
KENNY: Fourth, actually. The first was at Telok Ayer Street, then Ann Siang Hill, then Club Street, and now, Yong Siak Street. It won’t be the last though!
RACHEL: You guys rent, right?
KENNY: We’ve been renting for the last ten years. It’s a horrible thing! [laughs] We signed a two-year lease at Telok Ayer Street when we first started out, paying about $1,700 for a decent-sized second floor unit. To be honest, we were struggling quite badly during those first two years, to the point that we questioned if we should even continue. We were young, naïve, and the learning curve was so steep. We assumed that if we had good intentions, ran a good business, and had a good brand, people would still come even though we were located on the second floor. But we were proven quite wrong.
RACHEL: I guess people were just too lazy to climb those stairs.
KENNY: Even I’d be lazy to climb that flight of stairs! But the stairs alone were enough to be a huge psychological barrier for potential customers. Two years in, we shifted to Ann Siang Hill, which was what we always had in mind as our ideal location. Luckily, we were friends with the people behind Front Row and they subleased the ground floor unit of their three-story building for $7,000 to us. We were only making $8,000 to $9,000 gross sales per month before deductions, but we were so damn determined that we made that leap. Our friends thought we were crazy, but we were confident that Ann Siang Hill was the place to be. This time we were proven right.
RACHEL: That’s awesome.
KENNY: Yeah, those two years were fantastic, but there were also certain pitfalls. We got written about in the media quite frequently, sales were good, and it sort of built up this false sense of delusion that we were almost invincible. My mum passed away when we were at Ann Siang Hill and she left me a three-room flat. And being a risk-taker, I decided to sell it for $200,000 and use that money to start a second bookstore. We found a three-story unit at Club Street and opened a non-fiction bookstore called Polymath & Crust to complement BooksActually’s primarily fiction collection. That’s when things started falling apart.
RACHEL: What exactly happened?
KENNY: When we started BooksActually at Telok Ayer Street, I had accumulated stock from book fairs. With Polymath & Crust, we were starting from scratch and I had to buy a shitload of books. That $200,000 was gone in less than six to eight months.
RACHEL: Was most of that money spent on stock?
KENNY: Stock, renovations, and stupid ideas like putting some plants in the bookstore but nobody took care of them, so they all died. [laughs] Like, “I’m an entrepreneur! I’ve got money to spend! Let’s buy that nice table, why not?” And looking back on it I think, “Oh my god, why did I do that?” [laughs] Our egos had gotten really big. The media was portraying us as this miracle—bookstores were closing, but here we were running two of them… and we let all of that get to our heads. So after our lease was up at Ann Siang Hill, we shifted our operations to Club Street, closed Polymath & Crust, and ran the entire store as BooksActually.
RACHEL: The rent was decent?
KENNY: Yeah, we were paying $8,000 for the entire three-story building. We’re lucky to have had decent landlords. Anyway, the lease at Club Street eventually ended, which is why we moved to Tiong Bahru.
RACHEL: How did that happen?
KENNY: I’m friends with Cynthia Chua from The Spa Esprit Group who initially set up 40 Hands (the café opposite BooksActually) with Harry Grover. She suggested Yong Siak Street as a potential new location for us, so I went down on a weekday and it was heinously quiet. Dead, even. All our previous shops had been in commercial districts but this was in a residential area. There were no other retailers at the time, so I didn’t even want to consider it. Cynthia convinced me to visit on a weekend, but there was no difference! [laughs]
RACHEL: Sounds like a pretty ominous beginning.
KENNY: It so happened that—on that weekend—I saw a “For Rent” sign outside the unit we’re currently sitting in. One of my good friends who was with me offered to call the landlord. It turned out he lived around the corner, so he came over, opened the place up, and it was just perfect. He was already planning to change the floor tiles, rewire the whole place, and install a glass façade. And the clincher was the rental—$3,800, which was a no-brainer. It was a dead area. But at that price, who cares?
RACHEL: And that’s how you ended up here.
KENNY: Yes. We had a two-year honeymoon period, after which the whole area got gentrified. Rent rose to $8,000, then $9,000 for the third two-year lease. But we realised the business is sustainable, so it can be done. We’ve been in the black since our third year of operations, and I have to get GST (Goods and Service Tax) registered this year, which means that we’re taking in a decent amount as a small outfit. We also plan to eventually own our own property. We have twelve to thirteen months to get our shit together!
RACHEL: Are you hoping to stay in the Tiong Bahru area?
KENNY: It’s not really worth the buy. I’d probably have to pay around $3 million for this unit, and I could easily find a much bigger $2 million shop house in Balestier. We feel confident in our ability to gentrify an area. And we’ve also come to a tacit understanding with some F&B operators like The Spa Esprit Group, The Lo & Behold Group, and Chye Seng Huat Hardware to try and work together if it’s mutually beneficial. That allows us to create a sort of ecosystem regardless of where we are. Of course, this eventually drives up the rent.
RACHEL: I know you spent some time at Tower Books and Borders. What did working at these places teach you about running a bookstore?
KENNY: Tower Books was a small space, but the culture was very liberal. They sold whatever local books were in print at that time and were very supportive of counterculture and small enterprises. They were the only bookstore back then that had shelves dedicated to obscure topics like gender studies. Borders was a very corporate environment, definitely more structured and systematic. I think the mixture of liberalness that I got from Tower Books and the business savvy that I got from Borders resulted in BooksActually.
Borders just forgot to be booksellers first and foremost.
RACHEL: Do you think the rise of the e-reader contributed to Borders’ downfall?
KENNY: The e-reader hasn’t really taken off in Singapore, so it’s wrong to say that Borders died because of that per se. In the States, yes. But none of the bookstores here can blame the e-reader because there hasn’t been that same penetration rate or stranglehold. So it’s odd when we see media outlets pin the blame for bookstore closures on e-readers. That’s not looking deep enough. I think Borders just forgot to be booksellers first and foremost.
RACHEL: What do you have to say to people who claim that print is dead?
KENNY: Luckily for us, not yet. Maybe it’s just a human thing, but we’re all such tactile beings that we haven’t developed a feel for things that are too digital or like, robotic pets. [laughs]
RACHEL: Mark Zuckerberg wants to invent a robot to help take care of his household.
KENNY: But he’ll never allow it to touch his kid! [laughs] No matter how intelligent that robot is, he’ll never allow it to take care of his young baby. Humans, on a very basic level, crave the tactile and the physical. We need air to breathe, food, sex, and some sort of emotional fulfilment. . . the digital can only sustain us for so long. Even if someone invented a device with a battery that never went flat, print will still survive. Since the Gutenberg Bible was printed and the first printing press was founded, print has survived for so long. On some level, I think it allows us to exist as well.
RACHEL: Did you have a very literature-filled childhood?
KENNY: I grew up on a lot of books. My mum was a typical housewife and my dad was a taxi driver, so we were a lower-income family.
RACHEL: Were your parents big readers?
KENNY: To a certain extent. Dad was a non-fiction reader who’d always try to read before he went to bed. Mum would read self-help books like “How to Get My Kid to Score A1s” and stuff like that. They never hurried me along when we went into bookstores and would often give me money to buy a book. My mum also took me to the neighbourhood library on weekends and I’d use the entire family’s library cards to check out sixteen books. So reading has always been a constant. There was never a time when books weren’t a part of my life.
It’s myopic to tell someone they need to have a degree to make something of their life.
RACHEL: I also heard that you dropped out of Nanyang Polytechnic?
KENNY: I dropped out when I was just a year away from finishing. Most of my lecturers and advisors were telling me to suck it up and get it over and done with, but I didn’t want to waste anymore time doing something I wasn’t interested in. The final thing my course manager said to me was, “Kenny, you will never amount to anything in your life.” And I’ve held those words to heart ever since. It’s myopic to tell someone they need to have a degree to make something of their life. You’ve just got to know what you want and be willing to put in the work.
RACHEL: Do you feel like you’ve always marched to the beat of your own drum?
KENNY: I can’t say that I march to a different beat, but it’s always been hard for me to play it safe. I’m quite influenced by both my parents, who were very liberal and accepting of different mindsets. My dad died a year after we set up the bookstore, and my mum passed away from cancer a year after that. Both of them passing on so early taught me not to waste time. We really have no idea when we’re going to die, and I don’t want to waste too much time being rigid or not giving something a shot if it’s worth doing. I mean, you’re not going to bring money to the grave with you, right? So while we’re still here, let’s just try to do the things we enjoy and be open to discovering things as we go along. Take all this vintage stuff that’s around us. . .
RACHEL: I was just going to ask you about that and how you’ve accumulated everything over the years. BooksActually’s visual identity has been such an important part of its brand.
KENNY: It’s all thanks to my bloody hoarding tendencies! [laughs] That first year at Telok Ayer Street, the store was just empty white walls. Today, as you can see, it’s crammed.
RACHEL: You guys were on the minimalist trend before it started then. [laughs]
KENNY: [laughs] I thought it looked so bare and boring! So we started bringing our own vintage possessions to decorate the place. And customers would ask to buy that old ruler or that old glass that was on display instead of the books I was trying to sell to them! It supplements the income we make from selling books, and it’s become part and parcel of the BooksActually experience.
RACHEL: It’s all sourced locally, right?
KENNY: Yup, everything’s from Singapore and I’ve picked up lots of things from the old Sungei Road flea market. Take these old Magnolia milk bottles—our grandparents remember them perfectly because schools used to give them out to kids. Singapore changes so damn fast, and we’re always griping that historical landmarks are being torn down. So how do you preserve that sort of physical, nostalgic, cultural memory? I think that one of the better ways to do so is through small items. If your grandfather or grandmother looks at that Magnolia milk bottle and it triggers a memory and he or she has a story to tell you, then it’s literally transferring that history to you. Even though you never used that bottle for yourself, now you know the story behind it. It’s like owning a piece of history and narrative which persist. Our history doesn’t necessarily have to be contained within buildings and cemeteries, we can also protect and preserve it through books, art, and small items.
Passion can only take you so far—it can’t carry you through the really dark days.
RACHEL: What do you think is the biggest lie that gets told about starting your own business?
KENNY: That passion alone is enough. Passion can only take you so far—it can’t carry you through the really dark days. Often when someone wants to start a business, they don’t fully interrogate their reasoning behind the decision or ask themselves if they want to do it for the rest of their lives. I know a bunch of people who’ve started a business with the mindset of just trying it out for a couple of years, and if it doesn’t work out they can fall back on their corporate jobs. But that’s not gonna work. Time is finite. Life is finite. Why bother if you’re just going to give up after awhile?
RACHEL: So you reckon you really need to be in it for the long haul?
KENNY: Yes. The passion needs to be there, but you also need to be willing to do everything you can to will your company to succeed, like sacrificing leave, holidays, or a work-life balance. The mindset needs to be that once you’re doing it, you’re doing it forever. And that no matter how bad shit gets, it can’t fail.
I’m not going to allow my temperament to be controlled by an investor.
RACHEL: Have you guys ever been approached by potential investors?
KENNY: Yeah, but it’s never really worked out. I’m not one to censor myself, and the character of the bookstore is derived from its founder. I’m going to be combative and controversial at times, and I’m not going to allow my temperament to be controlled by an investor. That makes it very hard for people to invest. It’s the same with Math Paper Press. We try not to rely on grants because we’re striving for sustainability. Besides, if we took grants from the start, we’d be reliant on them and the whole business would fall apart if the grants went away.
RACHEL: Math Paper Press has published some titles that deal with sensitive subject matter. Have you ever run into any censorship complications?
KENNY: Nope, never. Even though some of the things we publish can be bit too jarring for certain people, we’ve never gotten any shit. We’ve published a collection of LGBTQ essays, I Will Survive, which just had its second print run of another 2,000 copies. Part of that is because we don’t take grants. I know I’ll never be able to fit the conditions of the grant, so why should I even bother?
RACHEL: Do you see Math Paper Press diversifying in terms of content or genre?
KENNY: Yes, definitely. We want to reach out to as many people as possible and the best way to do that is through different formats. We’ve already started doing a few photography books. And we want to try our hand at publishing a free magazine in the vein of Granta or The New Yorker, but we’ll keep it local and free and run it on ad revenue. We’re hoping for a circulation of 20,000 to 25,000 copies, so if you walk into Starbucks or a random café you can pick up a free literary journal along with your coffee.
RACHEL: It’s similar to what Underscore is doing with The U Press.
KENNY: Correct. We want to get people familiar with local writers. Having that many copies in circulation should change some of the dynamics regarding how the public perceives and interacts with local literature.
RACHEL: When’s the last time you took a vacation?
KENNY: I travelled to Bangkok last July to attend the Bangkok Book Festival. They paid for the airfare, accommodations, per diem, and even gave me an honorarium. So I came back well-rested and having earned a bit of money. That was the best deal ever! [laughs] I won’t travel if I can accomplish more for the business by staying here.
RACHEL: Won't you regret not seeing more of the world when you are young and healthy?
KENNY: It’s tricky when life is finite. When shit doesn’t hit the fan, you’re fine. But what happens if you’re hit with cancer at the age of 37? What happens then? Are you going to go skydiving tomorrow because you’ve wanted to do that for 20 years? I just don’t feel like we think enough about when we’re going to die. If I’m going to die tomorrow, I better be doing something that I enjoy.
RACHEL: Well, Singapore’s a death-denying society, as are most other cultures in the world.
KENNY: Yes. It’s a sensitive taboo topic that many people are unwilling to confront. Even with practical things like buying insurance—people do it half-heartedly. Renée and I have both taken out insurance so that if one of us dies, the business gets a cash payout. So even if I die tomorrow, the bookstore will have some relief during that transition period to get things in order.
RACHEL: How do you carve out downtime for yourself?
KENNY: I’m still using an old Nokia 2G phone, so when I leave the bookstore and take a taxi somewhere I don’t have access to a smartphone—that’s how I get my downtime. I zone out. I don’t do anything. When I sit down to eat my food, I’ll just eat my food. It’s a luxury I afford myself and a practice which I want to continue implementing in my life.
RACHEL: Do you handpick every book that ends up on BooksActually’s shelves?
KENNY: Yes, I’m the only buyer. It’s not that hard and it may look like a ton of books, but it’s accumulative.
RACHEL: What percentage of the titles are Math Paper Press publications?
KENNY: Around 30% to 35%.
RACHEL: How do you decide which manuscripts to publish?
KENNY: If it’s prose, I’m generally the one deciding. For poetry, I’ll turn to Cyril Wong for his input. The writing definitely has to be competent. You can’t come to me with shitty broken language or grammar. I also try to look at it from a sales point of view.
RACHEL: What makes a book sell?
KENNY: I don’t want to say that I’m very good at it because it’s been hits or misses. Our book market just isn’t developed enough. We’re selling a shitload of local books, but we’ve not reached that critical level we’re capable of hitting.
RACHEL: Can you elaborate?
KENNY: Everyone is a potential customer, and I know most people in Singapore either haven’t heard of BooksActually, have yet to visit, or haven’t visited in years because we’re so far away or have moved so much. So even though we’re hitting decent numbers and are sustainable, there’s the potential for greater growth.
RACHEL: I feel there’s a stigma attached to local literature and many people are more likely to purchase international bestsellers over books by local writers. Do you agree?
KENNY: Oh, yes. But I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot because that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reason why BooksActually sells tons of local books is because we’re willing to merchandise them. There’ve been times when sales of a local title have beat Kinokuniya’s collective sales across its four stores, and that’s really the bookseller’s fault. When I was working at Borders, other regional stores used to dump random books that they couldn’t sell with the Singaporean store, but we turned them into bestsellers by displaying them prominently. That’s the power of merchandising. That’s you, as a bookseller, selling. The reason why local literature sells so well at BooksActually is because we push it. I don’t just shelve it in a corner. If other bookstores were willing to level up and devote an entire wall to, say, Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic, they’d sell shitloads.
RACHEL: What were some of your favourite books growing up?
KENNY: I read a lot of fiction. The most memorable book I read as a kid was Roots by Alex Haley, which is a novel about the African American experience and deals with themes like slavery and rape. It really affected me. My mum was probably too busy to vet my reading material, or maybe she didn’t really care.
RACHEL: I read somewhere that you think bookstores intimidate some people. Why so?
KENNY: I think it’s because of our culture. Books are viewed as a bit highbrow and stepping into a bookstore is something that an average Singaporean wouldn’t do. During my dad’s generation, those born in the 1950s and 1960s, it was much easier for them to find a bookstore to walk into. But that culture has shifted.
People feel intimidated by bookstores because they aren’t commonplace or part of the norm anymore.
RACHEL: Why do you think that’s happened?
KENNY: Well, it’s not exactly easy or convenient to wander into a random bookstore anymore, because there are so few of them. Our top online customers are from places like Pasir Ris on the outer edges of Singapore where there are no bookstores in the vicinity. People feel intimidated by bookstores because they aren’t commonplace or part of the norm anymore.
RACHEL: What more can be done to encourage a culture of reading among Singaporeans?
KENNY: Sadly, we may just have to be really pragmatic about it since Singaporeans are so damn pragmatic about everything. [laughs] Sell Singaporeans on the fact that reading gives you more knowledge. And once they start reading for knowledge, they’ll find themselves enjoying it. Reading is a behavioural thing, so we’ve got to condition them from young. The fact that I grew up seeing my parents read made reading come naturally for me. And it’s sad when families come into BooksActually and the parents tell their kids to hurry up so they can leave because they themselves aren’t interested. You have to manifest that behaviour if you want your kids to follow your example. Even the simple act of buying a book—once you get into the habit, is something that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
RACHEL: Yeah, reading is a good habit to cultivate.
KENNY: At the end of the day, I just want as many people to read as possible. Reading makes you more empathic and understanding. Whether you’re reading a fiction or a non-fiction book, you’re being exposed to something different. When I read Roots, I was introduced to black slavery, which led to me reading up on the Civil Rights Movement. It gave me a greater perspective and a different viewpoint.
RACHEL: What are some of the books you’re reading right now?
KENNY: The Third Plate by Dan Barber is my favourite book. It brings together food, farming, and agriculture in a very different way. Before that, I read Michael Pollan’s Food Rules and Diane Ackerman’s The Rarest of the Rare. I’m trying to read Capital by Thomas Piketty, but I’m still on page two of the introduction. I tried to read it last night but I fell asleep! It’s huge.
RACHEL: My 2016 resolution is to finally start and hopefully finish reading Infinite Jest, so I guess we’re in the same boat.
KENNY: Oh, you should. Just do it fast! The best way to deal with it is to speed read. I’ve given up on Ulysses so many times. [laughs] I’ll need to be bedridden with an injury and left with just that book in order to ever finish it. I also read the Elon Musk biography, which was pretty interesting.
RACHEL: What’s your greatest regret?
KENNY: Wasting time and not doing this earlier. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t be so afraid or think that I had to have a solid business plan and a certain amount of money before starting the bookstore.
RACHEL: What’s next for BooksActually?
KENNY: We want to focus on the publishing side of things. We’ve realised that we’re only good at running a bookstore in a single location because we can’t replicate its character, which is what makes it special in the first place. Publishing is a way for us to expand and reach out to more people. Once we secure our own property, we’ll try and channel all of our resources back into publishing.
RACHEL: Finally, what do you want to be remembered for?
KENNY: Singaporean literature. If we were to go out right now and ask 10,000 random people to name one local writer they knew, the name they’d give us would be Catherine Lim. Or they’ll say, “I don’t know any local writers, but I know Singapore Ghost Stories.” That’s a nightmare answer! That, or Neil Humphreys are the nightmare answers. I hope ten years down the road, people will be able to throw out a few other names. That’s what I want to be remembered for. For doing as much as I could to spread and develop Singaporean literature and make it a common thing in our society.
Edited by Yong Hui Yow and Wy-Lene Yap
(Rachel is a freelance writer and a contributing editor for Kinfolk.)