BooksActually: Bookstore Interview


In a world of chain bookstores, independents like BooksActually continue to thrive, in large part, I think to the people behind the store — in this case, Kenny and Karen. Follow them on Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter, and you’ll understand their love for the written word and no matter where you are, I defy you not to get caught up in that. Recently, their store made BuzzFeed’s list of 17 Bookstores that will Literally Change your life, a testament to their quirkyness and just how many people are responding to them.

Tell us a little about where you are located in Singapore?

We are located in a conservation status neighbourhood called Tiong Bahru estate. The residential blocks here were built in the 1930s by the British Colonial government under this entity called Singapore Improvement Trust.

On any given day, what sort of customers would you see walk in?

Every sort 😀 Or at least that is how the bookstore was started. We welcome anybody, and everybody from age eight to eighty, who might enjoy a good read to walk in.

006When you started the store, what sort of concerns did you having going into starting an independent store in a world of Borders and bigger stores? 

I think we were simply very naïve, and too young to properly understand the difficulties, sacrifices, and time needed to run a small bookstore against the bigger boys. Concerns were simply how to get more people to know about our existence, and of course, to get everyone to buy more books.

Looking back, do you have any regrets about the decisions you’ve made?

Trying to open a 2nd branch when we were wet behind our ears.

I was reading about how you thought literature was intimidating to readers and set about demystifying it and introducing readers to these authors through the Bird&Co brand – I thought that was so true! Literature can be intimidating. How has that been going? What has the community/reader/customer response been?

We are still trying to grow a reading culture in Singapore. A culture where reading is an everyday norm. A culture where buying a book is similar to buying the much needed morning cup of coffee. The going has always been tough but if one has been for so long, the only way is up.

Through your Math Paper Press, the store also works with and supports local writers
005– how has that been going? Has it been well received by customers?

Since day one, that has always been part and parcel of what the bookstore is. We are a local bookstore, and if we don’t support our local writers, then what else is the point of doing all these. And yes, customers are actually positively surprised with the wide range of local writers that we stock up.

Tell us a little about a Press project that sticks out in your mind?

Our very first one surely. It was Cyril Wong’s The Boy with the Flower that Grew out of His Ass. Even the title is sort of mind boggling. We had no experience, no printer contacts, not much funds, and we still got it out.  Of course, it took us another four years before we had a new publication but it was our first, and by far, the most humbling.

Are ebooks a concern for you right now? Or are your customers coming to you for a completely different experience?

We are on this journey where we have grew up with a good core group of customers. Some had visited us since year one, and a few were undergrads/young working adults, started bringing their dates to the bookstore, and now, a handful are married, and have children of their own now. We hope this continues moving forward. We hope to continue growing up with their children, and the children’s children.


When you first started the store, what did you expect of this journey you were starting? What has been the most unexpected thing about the journey thus far?

We only expected to earn a decent living from running a bookstore till the day we eventually expire.

Unexpected thing would most probably the addition of three rascals, the bookstore cats. They are Cake, Pico, and Lemon. And of course, my Mrs, or soon to be, to be running this together with me.

To find out more about BooksActually, Math Paper Press and Birds and Co, check out their site!


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