Originally set up on the second floor of a shophouse in Telok Ayer in 2005 by entrepreneur Kenny Leck, BooksActually celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year. An exhibition entitled “10 Years of BooksActually” was held at The Substation showcasing artifacts spanning the bookstore’s history and its several changes over the years. For the past five years, it has occupied a cozy corner of Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru, and has established itself as an indispensable cornerstone of the contemporary literary scene in Singapore affectionately dubbed “Singlit”.
Besides selling books, BooksActually has several offshoot brands providing services to the literary community at large. These range from their stationery brand, Birds & Co, to their publishing arm, Math Paper Press, which has been responsible for publishing over 140 titles and Ceriph, the first print journal in Singapore since Singa shut down in 2000 focused on providing a platform for local voices and stories engaging with contemporary Singapore.
BooksActually also organizes regular book launches, poetry readings, literary showcases, and a plethora of other literary events, such as the Singapore Art Book Fair 2014. BooksActually has become the avenue through which many young writers and creators are introduced into the Singapore literary scene, a personal mission for Leck and his team. Their latest innovation is book vending machines littered around Singapore dispensing SingLit books.
In our age of ebooks and online bookstores, it has been argued that many independent brick-and-mortar bookstores have adapted by becoming “third places” – i.e, places of communal gathering beyond the home and the workplace (the “first” and “second” places respectively) which “facilitate the healthy exchange of ideas and provide a public venue for civil debate and community engagement” (Scott 2012) that craft unique identities as cornerstones of communities, voices, and thinkers. BooksActually is one such “third place” in the SingLit scene, as much about its community as it is about its books.
The doors of BooksActually have been open to all voices, and has served as a confluence point for thinkers across all artistic disciplines, such as the literary, visual, music, and theatrical arts to interact. One of his active attempts to inculcate this spirit of healthy engagement is Babette’s Feast, a monthly gathering for those involved in the literary scene, where players from different generations and institutions can interact with each other outside of official capacities. He attempts to break up what he perceives to be the cliquish nature of the literary arts scene in Singapore. He believes there is a crucial need for writers, playwrights, National Arts Council representatives, journalists, publishers, and other players in the arts scene to have sit-down dinners and conversations with each other outside their work, as fellow human beings living in a respectful coexistence rather than ideological opponents and allies.
In my interview with Kenny Leck in October 2016, we discussed the various ways in which BooksActually’s roles as an independent entrepreneurial project, as a space in Tiong Bahru, and as a third space for the literary scene in Singapore both exist in tension and in symbiosis. This essay seeks to use our conversation to explore how BooksActually manages these three aspects of its identity, and the possible implications on other spaces in Singapore that aspire to become similar third spaces.
BooksActually as an independent bookstore
As an independent bookseller, he selects the books the store sells, sharing this responsibility with his staff. He points out that the store has stocked more Russian literature as of late, reflecting the recent interest in the genre on the part of Renee Ting, manager of BooksActually. Rather than pick commercial books available elsewhere, Leck stocks the shelves of BooksActually with alternative recommendations that he can personally recommend to his customers instead. In an amusing anecdote, he shared with us how he recommends Marquis de Sade, a French philosopher known for his lavishly erotic works from the 1800’s, to customers who ask for Fifty Shades of Grey.
This is part of Leck’s larger mission statement with BooksActually – to encourage critical thinking and a reading culture that allows individuals to see from other vantage points and learn broadly. Math Paper Press has the same goal, allowing BooksActually to expand the scope of locally written subjects. MPP published I Will Survive, an anthology of Singaporean GLBT stories, in 2013 and recently reprinted the book in 2015 after its initial 2000-copy run ended. He draws a parallel between the classic book To Kill A Mockingbird on racial injustice in the US to I Will Survive, which allows readers to see the common humanity of LGBT persons in Singapore so badly stigmatized.
As a neutral space for ideas to flourish, BooksActually has remained fiercely independent. Leck pointed out that Math Paper Press is known for not pursuing grants unlike other publishers in Singapore; his perspective is that grants develop a crutch mentality amongst booksellers, and hampers the entrepreneurial spirit by allowing publishers to break even without fighting tooth and nail for their books to achieve prominence. This advice was given to him by FirstFruits, a former publishing company in Singapore. Remaining independent has ensured BooksActually’s spirit of innovation and hardwork continues to thrive.
Furthermore, this spirit of independence has allowed it to publish books without the pressure of conforming to government guidelines, such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a set of plays written by controversial playwright Elangovan which were banned from performance due to their exploration sensitive topics of race, religion, and sexual exploitation.
BooksActually as a third space
This attitude of fierce independence he espouses is reflected in his relationship with the community that has developed around the bookstore. Leck insists that BooksActually is not meant to be a rallying point for any particular cause. He argues that any attempt to actively take on a role in civil society discussions could lead to the bookstore assuming a holier-than-thou disposition towards its customers. He believes in maintaining the neutrality of the bookstore as a space for pluralistic viewpoints to engage and flourish.
His position of remaining above the fray was tested in 2014, during “PenguinGate”. PenguinGate was an incident in July 2014, when several books depicting same-sex parenting in the National Library Board’s children section were in danger of being pulped for not being “pro-family” after receiving complaints from members of an anti-LGBT Facebook group, “We Are Against Pinkdot in Singapore”, which then resulted in an online backlash against the attempted pulping. BooksActually published a heated public comment condemning the pulping of the endangered books as seen in the Facebook post below. Looking back, he regretted this reaction he characterized as “kneejerk”, regarding it as political commentary.
I did not understand what he meant – isn’t the very existence of BooksActually and his creation of a space for thinkers to congregate already a political act? Isn’t the very space of BooksActually in Singapore, especially given its publications and the controversial writers they have played host to, an inherently controversial one? Leck explained that if BooksActually has been seen as politicized, it has only arisen from the store’s commitment to a healthy exchange of ideas; the conversations that result from the bookstore’s activities are beyond their control, and as such BooksActually is not involved in advocacy.
The books they have published that tackle controversial issues are also part of Leck’s larger mission of documentation in order to maintain an archive of Singapore’s history that accurately reflects the diversity of voices here. He explains that BooksActually should play an important role in archiving Singapore’s literary history and hence manages an archive of old literary texts in their backroom, working particularly at the securing of works from the 60’s to the 90’s. Leck and his team have also been referred to as “custodians of Singapore history” (T., 2011) for their extensive work in archival.
He explains that history serves as a guide for future generations, necessitating the role of preservationists such as BooksActually to store works published by diverse authors – he wishes to archive comprehensively enough for future academics to produce literary histories of Singapore that reflect all voices. He shared with us the way a community of archivers sharing similar goals has flourished around SingLit, with several other authors possessing their own archives, such as Joshua Ip and Alvin Pang.
Many independent bookstores have stood for free speech, resulting in the evolution of these bookstores into gathering points for movers and shakers in the literary world. When City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco published the famously controversial book of poems, Howl, by Allen Ginsberg, in 1955, it sparked off a landmark obscenity trial and birthed the Beats literary movement in America. While talking to Leck, I am reminded of this resolute independence. To me, BooksActually’s commitment to free speech and the literary arts echoes that of Ferlinghetti and Murao, who were arrested for publishing Howl, and fought to maintain City Lights Bookstore as a hub of free speech and pluralism, where writers can congregate, pontificate, and push boundaries.
BooksActually as a resident of Tiong Bahru
The community-building that Leck is involved in includes the physical environment of BooksActually’s location. One of the first issues he delved into in our interview was the effect of BooksActually’s presence to its current locale of Tiong Bahru, a quiet neighborhood of low-rise public housing built in the 1930’s, which has recently become the focus of the media and academia’s spotlight for its rapid gentrification and “hipsterification”. This is a process that has been argued to have robbed Tiong Bahru of its cultural and heritage value over the past 5 years, due to an influx of cafes and other hipster joints that have driven out old businesses, implicating BooksActually in the process. (Piew, 2015); (Lim & Tan, 2015); (Yee, 2014); (Chua, Tan, & Tan, 2014)
Leck frankly discusses these implications, and his own attempts to mitigate the effects – for example, he cautions his customers and guests to keep their volume down during late night events and be considerate towards the residents who live in the area. He states that businesses in the area have an “invisible responsibility” to the surrounding estates to conduct themselves maturely and with consideration to them, and to remain mindful of their activities.
Of course, he also cautioned against a simplistic narrative of the effects of gentrification on the neighbourhood; he relayed to me the story of a provision shop owner who had been struggling to sell her shop for $400 000 previously, and managed to sell the shop off for over $2 million after the hike in property prices around the area. He also shared several stories of elderly residents who were able to cash in on these price hikes and moved out to live with their children elsewhere after doing so. While this has been construed as the death of older businesses, he noted that these businesses were simply coming to the end of their natural life cycle; with no children willing to take over these businesses, their owners had to close them down anyway.
Symbiosis and Tensions
The fragile balance between these three aspects – BooksActually’s nature as an independent endeavor, a third space for its community, and a physical space negotiating the community it is embedded in – offers an important angle for other artistic spaces in Singapore to be analyzed through. In BooksActually’s case, the decision to remain independent has simultaneously allowed it to remain free as a third space but also constrained its ability to provide a larger space or certainty with regards to its survival. Other endeavours that rely more heavily on government funding might find itself with restrictions that prevent it from being seen as a true third space for thinkers, but may have a more certain future and be able to provide more services and activities.
These three aspects of BooksActually’s identity exist in perpetual tension and symbiosis, a careful balance that has required delicate management for the store’s continued survival. One example of the symbiotic relationship between these elements as highlighted earlier has been that BooksActually’s independence has allowed it to publish and feature politically sensitive works that may not be supported by publishing houses that are reliant on government funding. Likewise, its focus on community building and evolution into a third space for the literary community in Singapore has led to the community chipping in and supporting BooksActually’s efforts to gain an eventual permanent shop space through their support of the store’s storewide discount sales and fundraising efforts.
Another point of synergy highlighted by our interview was that BooksActually’s rejection of grants has compelled the store to come up with innovative ways to ensure books get sold. In the advice FirstFruits gave to BooksActually, one of their concerns was that bookstores that accept grants tend to have less of a drive to ensure their works get sold and gain recognition in the public eye, because grants have ensured that they can publish books without worrying about covering costs and making a profit in the way an independent enterprise would have to. Contrastingly, independent stores like BooksActually have a strong imperative to ensure their books get sold and read rather than stored elsewhere, tying into BooksActually’s nature as a third space that plays an active role in cultivating SingLit and a reading culture in Singapore.
However, these aspects of BooksActually’s identities have also come into conflict and remain in tension – in particular, their turbulent years at Club Street, which Leck reflected on with regret, citing it as an example of over ambition on their part where they had lost focus of the business aspect of BooksActually. In 2008, after their successes at Telok Ayer Street, they moved to Ann Siang Hill and set up a non-fiction store called Polymath & Crust in Club Street. Polymath & Crust occupied a three storey space, which included more spaces for congregation such as an artist’s studio and an exhibition space. This period was especially difficult for BooksActually, as the financial constraints of running two stores with these spaces proved to be too much for them, and they eventually closed down Polymath & Crust and moved to Yong Siak Street for cheaper rent in 2011.
The space at Yong Siak Street is hence an uneasy compromise between these aspects of their identity. While not as large as Leck would like for community events, it has nevertheless remained a fixture for community activities and in the imagination of the literary scene in Singapore, and has remained a sustainable entrepreneurial endeavor over the past 5 years. Meanwhile, Leck continues to work towards a permanent, larger space where BooksActually’s dreams of becoming a third space can be fully realized without worry of the perpetually increasing rent that is characteristic of spaces in gentrified Tiong Bahru. In Leck’s vision of a larger bookstore that he eventually hopes to acquire, he envisions a “long table” where individuals can chit-chat, write, and read, complete with free Wi-Fi and oolong tea, a space for interaction and community.
Yogesh Tulsi is a first year student at Yale-NUS College. He plans on majoring in either Literature or History, and is particularly interested in Singapore history. He enjoys filmmaking, bad movies, and Penang hokkien mee.
Scott, M. (2012, January 30). “How Libraries And Bookstores Became The New Community Centers”. Retrieved from http://www.newgeography.com/content/002629-how-libraries-and-bookstores-became-new-community-centers
T, I. T. (2011, April 6) “BooksActually – A Local Bookstore That Thrives In A Digital World”. Retrieved from
Piew, P. C. (2015, January 30). “Do Singapore neighbourhoods risk death by cappuccino?” The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/do-singapore-neighbourhoods-risk-death-by-cappuccino
Lim, P., & Tan, S. W. (2014, August 9). “Tiong Bahru: A hip and miss affair”. Today. Retrieved from http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/tiong-bahru-hip-and-miss-affair
Yee, J. (2015, February 2). “Are Hipster Cafes Eroding Tiong Bahru’s Identity?” Retrieved from https://mustsharenews.com/hipster-cafes-tiong-bahru/
Chua, Y. J., Tan, J. H. S., & Tan, S. Y. L. (2014). “The Rise of “Hipster” Culture in Singapore: Spatial Transformation in Tiong Bahru.” Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/7061683/The_Rise_of_Hipster_Culture_in_Singapore_Spatial_Transformation_in_Tiong_Bahru