SINGAPORE: Kenny Leck is nothing like a conventional businessman, but in his field he is considered a formidable force. In an era in which many large bookstores have been closed, his independent bookstore BooksActually survived and after 13 years it goes strong.
When I get there he is standing behind a pile of books next to the cashier. He wears an unobtrusive T-shirt and glasses. The only thing that is easily visible from afar is his prickly black hair.
It is a weekday and only a handful of people browse through the rows of books stretching from floor to ceiling at BooksActually at Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru.
We're going into a back room to talk. The 40-year-old answers questions with confidence, but I feel like talking to someone who is more of a book lover than a businessman.
To survive in this business, however, you & # 39; must necessarily be both & # 39; he admits.
To listen to the full interview, click here.
The company returned a modest profit of S $ 80,000 last year. For a single bookstore, "that's actually pretty ok," he says. The figure is modest for a large part because he has pumped more money to stimulate the publishing arm of the bookstore, Math Paper Press, so he often publishes local work that may not always yield money, but he thinks it's important to use & # 39 to bring out & # 39 ;. there ".
" When someone sends you a manuscript, be it fiction, non-fiction or a children's book, they try to tell a story. Especially if it is a Singaporean who has presented the manuscript to you, they try to tell you their own story. And that story is just as important as winning an Olympic gold medal. Because that is part of who we are, that is part of our history. "
Investing in publishing has slowed down his progress toward buying a permanent store for the bookstore.
While he and his co-founder have so far made the company work entirely on their own currency, they have recently started with a fundraising to bind investors to help them do this.
"It's more sustainable than paying rent and we hope we can do this with this crowdfunding effort."
Over the past 13 years they moved three times, each time because of a rise in rent, but for the last time seven years they have managed to bring some stability in Tiong Bahru.
The current rent is about S $ 10,000 a month, but he Do not complain.
"If you are a good entrepreneur, regardless of what the rent is, low or high, (if) you know the location works for you and the numbers are correct, you just stay. So for now it is fine. But in the future we do not know what will happen and who wants to be a landlord who will increase your rent by 50 to 100 percent? "
While he complains of high rents, he does not, as some business people do, that the authorities should intervene to control them.
" That's just how the free market economy works. If you expect the landlords to reduce the rent or if you ask the government to intervene to reduce the rent of the store, then you are just lazy and ask to be potted. We must not forget that it is not free money. Rent subsidies must come from taxpayers.
"Business people have to accept that this is how it is, capitalize your numbers and do more to make your business successful, that is what we have tried to do, but if the price is too high, then you must just the economy, but we also want to explore other options, such as having our own property. "
I notice that his public fundraising effort can be interpreted as" asking to be poured into the spoon ".
He disagrees with this
"We are aware that nobody should pay us a living, it is your private money." If you decide to help or invest, do it. If you decide not to help, it is good, "he said, saying decisively.
We talk more about the numbers and strategy to convince people to help later, but about the motivations of the lord Leck to understand, it is necessary to take a step back.
HE WOULD HE AMOUNTS TO NOTHING?
He came from a low-income family, his father was a taxi driver and his mother a housewife, both of whom acknowledged the importance of reading
"My mother was a typical parent who had many self-help books about read parenthood. Although she encouraged me to spend a lot of time in the library, she was never stingy when it came to buying books for me. "
He attributes his wish to possess books instead of just borrowing them from the library, to a" Greedy "instinct that, according to him, has many book lovers.
" My mother would never say no. She would crack her own numbers and figure out how to transfer money from her household expenses to buy books for me. I remember at school that there was an opportunity to buy different sets of encyclopedias, she bought them for me on the basis of a three-year repayment plan. "
He retired with an accounting and tax degree at a local polytechnic university, only two semesters before graduating and going to work at Borders before he co-founded BookActually in 2005.
He chose the polytechnic course for a very specific reason
"My father became very ill when I was 17, so the family needed me to come up with a solid income after National Service (NS). I chose all business-related courses and ended with Accounting and Taxation. It was a very clear route. If you are there, you can continue to make your accounting after NS and eventually you can become a chartered accountant who pays very well. "
But something changed, his father got better and ended up in a church well paid.This helped his decision to turn his back on the school to pursue his dreams.
His polytechnic course manager on that moment told him he would yield nothing, his memories are still very lively.
"I remember this person, but I understand why she said it. It was the context of that time. I think many people did not believe that you could succeed without a paper diploma. I actually did well at school. I was probably one of the ten best students and I enjoyed studying things like taxes. But I also knew that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. "
His parents seemed to understand his decision.
" I told my father that I wanted to stop and break the number of years. that would be saved if I stopped immediately and he told me to continue. That is what my parents have given me. Since I was a child, they have always trusted me to make my own mistakes, and to possess them to make decisions, both good and bad. " BOOKSTORES HAVE ONLY TO HAVE SCHOOLS
Working at big bookstores like Borders and Tower Books taught him what he should not do
He said in previous interviews that the mistake many of these stores to sell non-book items such as stationery, movie posters, gadgets and even snacks.
He now admits that he was guilty of this, albeit to a much more limited extent today.
"Booksellers are guilty, we're all guilty. "There were stages of this bookstore when we added non-book products because they brought in the money, and as we went on, we realized we're a bookstore, so why are we selling all these things? being a bookstore, let's work harder on the sale of books. " His focus is on displaying and marketing the books well and with that aim he creates pop-up stor es around the island. He believes that consumers should not be blamed for the loss of interest in reading or in physical books.
"The bookstores who have not made it, are only to blame themselves, I'm in the business, so I know, sometimes they receive shares and they do not show them, they'll leave it somewhere in a box. later they will tell you that the books do not sell, so who is the culprit? Is it the consumer, or is it the bookstore manager who has managed the outlet? Or is it the top that does not manage the company well enough to ensure that when the books arrive, they are processed and displayed?
"And not only displayed in terms of sliding in, but a nice visual display and sufficient marketing and branding."
FEAR AND ANTIVITY
He founded his first bookstore in Telok Ayer Street with less than S $ 25,000.
"We borrowed $ 20,000 from my co-founder's mother, maybe S $ 1,000 in our bank accounts, I borrowed S $ 700 from my father, I remember because my dad borrowed a fellow church member had to take and I had to pay back within the month, so the number was very clear.
"We have picked up a lot of skills from contractors. We even placed our presentation tables of discarded wood on Ikea shelves. We have made quite a few paintings ourselves. Many of our marketing materials are made in-house. The do-it-yourself philosophy became more pronounced as the years progressed. The current wooden wine crates that you see today in the bookshop are all assembled and assembled by us. We bought the wine boxes, planned the layout and then stuck them in the walls. "
When they had just begun, there would be days when there would be no sale at all.
He remembers the fear and fear he had felt then.
" I think for every store, bookstore or otherwise, that is the scariest thing that could ever happen. I remember that happened a few times in that first year. One day I got sick, so I decided to take a break. The second day I felt really good, but I felt so demoralized that I decided to stay home for another day. Then another. On the fourth morning I woke up and decided I would not do that, regardless of whether there is a sale or not. I just had to suck it up, open it up because you never know what's going to happen. "
He calls this period a turning point.
" If I was serious about running the business and if there is no sale, it means I do something about it, whether it's organizing a event, doing more marketing, more branding, bringing in people and getting sales. "
Later, however, he had to face even more challenges.
sold an HDB flat with 3 rooms that left his mother when she died and with the S $ 200,000 he had made of it, he founded a second bookstore in Club Street that failed.
"I made a wrong calculation. The space there was huge and we had to buy shares from nowhere. We had to buy a lot to fill that huge space that we had. And the money burned faster than you would ever think. "
They had to close it eventually, but luckily they managed to keep at least one store until today.
WHY INVESTING IN A BOEKSTORE?
I ask how his fundraising efforts to buy a commercial retailer for the bookstore.
The BooksActually Shophouse Fund has only made S $ 20,000 so far, they need much more for a deposit.
"An ideal location in Jalan Besar where it has a good atmosphere and a bit, but not improved at all, will cost us about S $ 5 million in total. For a not-so-ideal location, but a location that we still like, it will be about S $ 2 million. "
He is considering the area around Balestier.
I ask him what his proposal is for donors, why should people contribute to this fund?
" I suspect it is all about possibilities. In the course of time we have had contact with many people, we have formed relationships and we have discovered simple things. Two months ago, a customer who visited us at our previous location, for example, returned from the UK after completing her studies and she told us she is so happy to see us, because she can now leave her child see what the bookstore meant to her when she was still studying in Singapore. "
I notice that it all sounds sentimental." What is the business reasoning?
"There is no business reason. There is only that very intangible part of it. Everyone always asks where are our roots? Where is our commonality in this country, right? If they want to ask that but tell them that we actually have no roots in this country because everything changes so quickly and places disappear, they are clearly not looking hard enough or investing in it.
"Maybe someone on the road with whom you might be married, or your child could become a writer, maybe become a musician, eventually become an artist we ultimately support., It comes back to you."  But it seems that he has not succeeded in persuading many people with that argument.
He attributes the bleak contributions to a lack of publicity for the fundraising efforts and plans to gradually increase them.
But he reveals that "quite a handful" from private investors have offered to contribute, but as soon as they realized what he stood for, they retreated.
"Bookstores have a tendency to have a certain character, and the character here is strongly distracted from me – the person who leads it, for example against discrimination and injustice, so a few years ago, when the National Library Council pulled some books from their shelves because they emphasized different types of families, including same-sex parents, we took a stand, went to Amazon and bought all 300 copies of And Tango Makes Three in stock and sold them in our bookstore.
" We oppose everything that discriminates against another, but some our potential deep-pocketed investors have a certain social status, and they do not feel comfortable adjusting to such causes. . "
He would clearly rather reject the money than to abandon his ideals. [Forthetimebeinghesaidthathisprofitswouldnotbewonoverbytheacquisitionofthesamethingashewasdetermined
His ultimate goal was to have a large bookshop modeled on The Strand Bookstore in New York City
In others respects, he is happy to continue living humbly
"I currently only have a allowance that covers food and transport, and I rent an apartment near the bookstore that also serves as our publishing and storage space for our books , plus books ore supplies.
"I do not take a holiday. In the first nine years of the book trade I did not travel because it was unnecessary. When I got the chance to go to Bangkok after I was invited to speak to a speaker. were in 2015 for the Bangkok Literary Festival they paid all my expenses. "
Since he can not currently afford to expand or buy his own shop, the bookstore, on the scale that he does, clearly restrictions.
I ask if wealth is even a goal of his.
"I want to achieve wealth, but I want to achieve prosperity that enables me or the bookstore to help those who need it most because I've experienced what it's like to grow up in a low-income family, I have seen my people struggling to make ends meet and not to deprive their two children of basic material.
"The lowest point was when my father got sick, almost died, and with the loss of the only breadwinner in the family, we were suddenly an I was a loss. I was 17 that year when I started my & # 39; O & # 39; levels did. We were very, very lucky or blessed or both. His most important hospital bills were almost 80 percent subsidized by the government on the basis of our income level, and the rest of us joined our church. That kind of support meant that my mother could find her way to a job. "
Experiencing this" lack of wealth "has put him on a path to be as self-sufficient as possible, but it also has a deep belief in him that any acquired wealth must be used to To help another person in need.
business, he classifies budding writers as "those in need."
Through the publishable arm, Math Paper Press, he does his best to help them despite the fact that a part of the work has too little quality.
"There is definitely a quality shortage. Over the years, it has obviously progressed by leaps and bounds, especially in the last decade. But we will always have a quality shortage because not enough will be emitted. How are you going to achieve higher standards if you only have three or four serious publishers compared to a city like London where they have much more. They also have a longer history than we do.
"But we already have some very good work that is being ignored because sometimes local publishers do not push it hard enough, we have to do better."
In the meantime, he sees it as his responsibility to give all writers a " good debut ".
He contributes to society in a different way by sponsoring books for community readers for children from low-income families. Recently, he also contributed several thousand dollars to helping pay rent for a shelter for transgender people.
As we turn to business again, he admits that in some circles it is assumed that physical books passé, no matter how well traded they are.  "I think that the stingy side of book lovers – the fact that we are tactile creatures – will ensure that there is a market for books, but I also know that there are questions about how environmentally-friendly all this is."  I point out that e-books also have a carbon footprint, but ask him to justify why he continues his business despite his worries.
He finds the benefits worthwhile.
"With books we push knowledge and insight, each of us is influenced by one or a handful of books, I think that's the value, you use resources, but we produce books for suppressing conversations, for keeping stories, for pushing the envelope The use of paper to make a book is much more valuable than using the same sources to produce a memo pad. "
Some suggest that in a country with very good public libraries, buying books can actually be wasteful.
But he insists that the greedy instincts of book lovers that he has previously pointed out can make books a viable business in the future.
In fact he welcomes the competition.
"If we want to become a nation of readers, you need more bookstores, people today would rather open a cupcake store than a bookstore, but they do not know how to make numbers, they'll always tell you a large number of people will be eating cupcakes, but soon many of these companies will fold, and I believe that if they handle the numbers properly and have done the right marketing and publicity, they will see that selling books is feasible. "
According to him, the competition will also prevent him and his team from becoming complacent.
His advice for beginning entrepreneurs is simple.
"Do not go into the mentality to try it for two or three years and fall back on something else you're more familiar with. If you go into that mentality, you're ready for an easy failure. a situation of life and death, you will think of more ways to stay alive, right? In the business world it is the same, if you are faced with one problem, there may be several solutions, but if you go into that mentality, you will not even be able to see these solutions, you just give up. "
While running a sustainable business is clearly important to him when he is asked what impact he would ultimately like to have in the sector, his answer has little to do with monetary concerns.  "I always say that the best way to die is to just sit in a chair, read a book and suddenly expire, but I remember the people who have a huge stamp on me for the rest of my life. printed, whether they were teachers, parents or friends, I think that's the most valuable, in your hardest times you look back and know that those people have propped you, put you on their shoulders, so you can walk better Hopefully I can be that support for others in my personal and business life. "