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Bookseller, gambler, ah beng: How BooksActually’s Kenny Leck is changing the game

“If ever anyone tells him ‘you can’t do it, you will just die’, Kenny will be like ‘no, I am not going to fail - I am just going to do it right’," said writer Cyril Wong.

SINGAPORE – When his mother passed on, she left him a 3-room HDB flat. Mr Kenny Leck chose to sell it and start a second book store.

Within 12 months, he had used up the S$200,000 of the flat’s sales proceeds without any results to show for it, and was back to one store. “I burnt whatever my mum had left me, basically,” said Mr Leck.

But while he’d gambled away this last gift from his mother, it was in pursuit of one of the very first, and most enduring, things she had given him – a love for books.

It is a passion that has led him to take big risks in an industry that has witnessed the fall of giants like Borders and seen most others turn to online shop fronts. Mr Leck, 38, the owner of independent bookstore BooksActually, is profiled in Monday’s (March 13) episode of Game Changers, a series about entrepreneurs who reinvent themselves and their industry.

WATCH: Kenny in a nutshell (3:18)


He recounts how his mother used to take him to the Toa Payoh public library opposite his house, as an outlet for his restlessness. “I’d just borrow whatever I wanted and she never interfered in what I wanted to read. I think that has stayed with me,” he said.

That fervour was coupled with what he calls “a very bad gambling streak” inherited from relatives.

He had dropped out of polytechnic just two semesters away from getting his diploma, and went to work at Borders before co-founding BooksActually with business partner Karen Lai in 2005. “Going and setting up a bookstore, it’s a gamble,” he said.

After shifting three times, each time due to an increase in rent, BooksActually finally settled down at Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru, where it has been steadily building a fan base over the last six years.


Store director of books at Kinokuniya, Mr Kenny Chan, lauds BooksActually for the miracle of having made it for so long. “With the closure of Borders and Page One and shops around the world, there is a certain ground support (for bookstores) like the one he proposed, designed, created and inspired,” said Mr Chan.

SUNSET INDUSTRY? CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

Despite being warned by others that the book-selling trade was a sunset industry, Mr Leck makes short shrift of their doubt, preferring to find opportunity in chaos.

His reasoning? “Nobody wants to be involved in this, so it gives me more room to change the game,” he said.

Mr Leck believes he has found the flaw of failed bookstores like Borders: “Not because people are not buying books, but because it stopped being a bookstore.” Thus, his philosophy to selling books is all about going back to the basics.

“You want to sell a book, you display it nicely, you make sure the book is not crumpled,” he said. “Selling a book and selling, say, a head of cabbage, it’s not very different.”

This belief is stamped all over his store – books are thoughtfully arranged within the customer’s reach with their covers visible, against a backdrop of vintage knick-knacks and artwork by local artists. Writer Cyril Wong, Mr Leck’s friend, describes the shop’s style as “post-Muji, semi-Ikea”.

Being surrounded by books every day is how Mr Leck wants to live the rest of his life - which is why he intends to buy a permanent space for BooksActually.

GOING PHYSICAL

“I am selfish. I want to have a physical bookstore instead of an online bookstore,” he said.

He’d even want to spend his last moments in a bookstore. Imagining e-commerce company Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos having to face a warehouse and drones instead, he said: “It’s pretty sad, you know?”


Financing this dream, which some have called crazy, has taken years of planning, according to Mr Leck.

“Now that we are trying to purchase a property, that’s a different ball game, because that’s like millions of dollars that the both of us have never even seen,” said Ms Renee Ting, BooksActually’s manager and Mr Leck’s partner.

Calling his obstinate friend a “recalcitrant ah beng”, Mr Wong said: “If ever anyone tells him ‘you can’t do it, you will just fail, you will just die’, Kenny will be like ‘no, I am not going to fail, I am just going to do it right’.”

CHAMPIONING THE HOME GROUND

For now, Mr Leck is keeping an eye on the entrance of Amazon into the Singapore market – slated for the first quarter of 2017 – and how it would roll out its Kindle e-book products or same-day delivery services.

He feels that the potential challenge puts pressure on BooksActually to be innovative. And they have so far been just that – launching, for instance, a 24-hour “mystery book” vending machine, and the BooksActually Box service which sends a surprise book and an occasional freebie to subscribers each month.


BooksActually also sets itself apart by being adamant about carrying Singaporean literature, such as works by Cyril Wong, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Alfian Saat, among others.

For him the rationale is clear: “We’re a Singaporean bookstore, we should be carrying Singaporean content. Not because of national pride or out of loyalty – it’s our narrative, it’s our story.”

Said Ms Ting: “I hope in future, people will look back and see that ‘yah, they really changed how people saw Singapore literature’.”

More about Kenny Leck’s story on Game Changers this Monday, March 13, 8pm SG/HK.