An independent bookstore with a specialty in Literature, BooksActually has been a quiet part of the local book scene for some time, and they just turned 4 years old on Nov 29.
Borne of owners Karen Wai and Kenny Leck’s shared love for reading, this compact establishment didn’t survive 4 years just by sitting pretty in an old shophouse. The shop has achieved much this past year, and on closer review of the rustic mix on display, they offer a lot more than just books, actually.
UrbanWire drops by for a look at the shop’s hallmarks.
Meet Karen and Kenny.
Entering the shop on a rainy December afternoon, you’d think you stepped into the storybook department of Santa’s Workshop; The walls are tightly packed with various literary works – from Nabokov and Orwell to classic fairy tales –, you hear a typewriter hard at work somewhere on the upper floors, soft music plays, and the place smells of fresh paper and wood.
The second floor houses a brocante (secondhand market). On display are common items from bygone days – cream glass marbles from our parents’ childhood, and old rubber stamps. Their non-fiction sister shop, Polymath and Crust, is on the third floor. It carries titles including food, nature, geography, and history.
“It’s like another world,” said Helene Mayne, a first-time customer, “You can tell these people really love books. This shop is a sensory experience.”
At present, there are a number of installations at the store. Here’s a quick look at our favourites:
1) Brillat- Savarin’s Literary Orders: Just by the entrance, you’ll find stacks of vintage paper and a coin box. Typewritten on each piece is a passage from Karen and Kenny’s favourite poems and novels. They’re free, but you can drop them a little reward.
2) We Share Stories: An exhibition initiated by the Singapore Design Festival. “We Share Stories” invites you to drop off a roll of film of pictures you took, and exchange it for a roll taken by someone else.
They liked this so much at BooksActually, they’ve asked to continue this little project after the festival ended in November. So it’s still there, and an almost permanent feature.
Intellectual wall-art at the entrance: Spot your favourite author’s portrait.
“These installations are something for people to think about,” said Karen, “You don’t necessarily have to come in to buy a book.”
Installations will be up for the rest of the year.
Birds and Co.
Amongst the range of books, you’ll also find the shop’s handmade stationery on display.
(Image courtesy of BooksActually)
Birds and Co. is BooksActually’s stationery line. The collection includes pencils with famous authors’ names on them, and a good variety of whimsical handmade notebooks, like the “Chronicles of the Deer” and “Portions for Foxes” ranges.
“We like the old way of bookbinding, so we do a lot of handmade stationery, with hand-stitching. All the covers of our notebooks are hand-printed, since we really like the letterpress,” Karen told us.
Notebook prices start from $3.
Hand-stitched book spines.
Unpublished writers take note: BooksActually also has a publishing arm, Math Paper Press.
“Publishing’s a very personal process. Both of us edit the works, and if we like something, we try to incorporate our ideas,” said Karen, “if we feel illustrations suit the writing a lot, we will try to get in touch with our artist friends to do a collaboration, things like that”.
Book launches and author readings are held for free as well, both for the author and the public. This is their way of showing support for the local writing scene.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the couple hand-picks every title the shop carries.
“It sort of reflects our own tastes,” said Karen.
Kenny summed it up in 2 words: “Processing Hell”. But hey, hard work pays off, evidently.
The average novel is sold at $35 a copy.
BooksActually is certainly a very busy 4-year-old. With so much going on, we find it amazing that the owners whole-heartedly micromanage everything about the business.
“It’s our labour of love, so we have to see that we’re involved in every aspect,” said Karen happily.
What Lies Ahead
From their humble beginnings making rounds at university book bazaars, BooksActually has come a long way. From their original second-storey shop space, they now occupy an entire shophouse.
Polymath and Crust, their non-fiction collection, started just this May. Also, the shop was approached to be the official festival bookstore of the Singapore Writers Festival, held in October.
“We’re happy we’re still surviving. We hope to create a legacy and be around for the next 10 to 20 years, or more,” said Karen.
They’ve only just turned 4, but the 2 owners already have some new goals to work toward.
“We’d love to expand more on our title selection,” Karen said.
There are also hopes for Polymath and Crust and Birds and Co. to become separate entities and have shop units of their own.
To us at UrbanWire, it looks like BooksActually might actually get to create the legacy they hope to have. If it’s love and passion that drives a place, then they ought to be sticking around for another 4 years and more, easily.
86 Club St
Contact: +65 6222 9195
Monday to Saturday – 11am to 9pm
Sunday – 12 pm to 6pm
Tanjong Pagar MRT Station, Exit G