BooksActually, founded in 2005, is one of Singapore’s most well-known independent bookstores. Currently located at Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru, the bookstore specialises in lesser-known literary fiction as well as local works. It has a publishing arm, Math Paper Press, and produces stationery under the brand Birds & Co.

BooksActually is one of Singapore’s most well-known independent bookstores, with a sales niche in lesser-known literary fiction and local works. The bookstore also sells non-fiction books, vintage typewriters, cameras and imported stationery brands such as Ciak and Rhodia.1

The name “BooksActually” is a shortened version of the bookstore’s original tagline: “Books actually worth buying”.2

Founder Kenny Leck first thought of opening a bookstore while he was working as a inventory specialist at the Borders bookstore. There, he met Rachel Chee, later a minority shareholder in BooksActually, while he was acquainted with co-founder Karen Wai through a mutual friend.3 They agreed that there was a need for a niche bookstore selling books unavailable at the major bookstores. Leck had initially intended for the bookstore to be online, but Wai felt strongly that it should be a physical bookstore.4 In order to open the store, Leck and Wai invested all their savings and borrowed S$20,000 from Wai’s mother.5

Prior to the opening of BooksActually, the group held book fairs in the National University of Singapore (NUS) to generate publicity. BooksActually was founded by Leck and Wai on 8 October 2005, though its official opening was on 29 November later that year.6

BooksActually was first located at Telok Ayer Street. During the bookstore’s initial years, it was publicised mainly through friends’s recommendations.7 Sales were low and on some days there were no customers at all. Leck and Wai were so discouraged by this that they once closed the shop for two days. It was also a difficult time for Leck as both his parents passed away during this period.8 Despite the poor sales, the bookstore received accolades. For example, in 2007, it was included in The Straits Times Power List (The Arts) and described as a “locus for the local arts community”.9

In 2008, BooksActually moved to Ann Siang Hill as its Telok Ayer landlord wanted the shop space back. It opened a second store, Polymath & Crust, at the nearby Club Street, despite the ongoing recession. Polymath & Crust focused on non-fiction books so that the main store would be able to concentrate on fiction and poetry, which were its strengths. The three-storey Club Street site also housed an artists’s studio on the second floor and an exhibition space on the third floor.10

Leck and Wai later realised that they were unable to cope with the cost of renting two spaces. They decided to close the Ann Siang store and moved BooksActually to the ground floor of their Club Street premises in 2009. That same year, BooksActually was selected as the official bookstore for the Singapore Writers Festival, which involved stocking books written by authors who were participating in the event.11

In 2011, the bookstore moved again to Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bahru. The move was due to an increase in rent at the Club Street site. While Leck was searching for a new location, Leck’s friends, who had just opened Forty Hands Café on Yong Siak Street, invited BooksActually to open a pop-up store (a small, temporary sales counter) outside the café. While visiting the street, Leck discovered a spacious location that was suitable for the bookstore and promptly rented it despite the lack of commercial activity in the vicinity at the time. The move to the new site increased sales and the profits were largely invested in Math Paper Press, the bookstore’s publishing arm. Leck’s hope was to eventually purchase a permanent space for the store.12 In 2012, BooksActually opened an online store and produced a documentary about the bookstore.13

BooksActually frequently organises events on its premises, ranging from book launches (by its press or other local publishers) to readings and exhibitions. It has also opened pop-up stores at locations such as Forty Hands Café and Hotel 1929, and participates in the Art + Design markets at Sculpture Square.14

In 2006, the bookstore started Poetry du Blanc, a monthly event where people could come to read out their writings.15 That same year, it held Singapore’s inaugural Moleskine exhibition featuring 20 notebooks customised by Asian artists.16 BooksActually also approached 39 locals from the creative industry to create works of art using Rhodia no.12 notepads. These art pieces were then exhibited at the store.17

In 2007, the store held Species of Polaroids and Other Pieces, an exhibition of Polaroid photo-essays created by 19 local artists.18 In 2008, the store held The Saddest Place on Earth, an exhibition of local design collective Mimipong’s soft toys attached with sad mini-stories penned by writers and musicians from various countries.19 BooksActually also held other events such as Writers Fringe, which involved readings and signing sessions, in 2009.20

In 2010, the bookstore organised the launch and exhibition of Olympia Le-Tan’s book-inspired handbags and the Shinzi Katoh Art Showcase exhibition.21 In 2011, BooksActually held the An Ode to Penguin exhibition at The Arts House using Leck’s and Wai’s extensive personal collection of books published by Penguin.22 Since 2011, the store has also held a series of talks known as Well-informed Wednesday.23 From 19 to 20 April 2013, BooksActually opened for 24 hours and held several events to commemorate the book Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore.24

Math Paper Press
Math Paper Press is BooksActually’s publishing arm. It publishes a range of local writers’s works, and “aim[s] to publish small print runs of shorter works that established local publishers would pass on”. It also distributes local works, and new releases are promoted and read at the bookstore’s events. Leck revealed that the creation of the press was inspired by City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which was well known for publishing unfamiliar writers.25

One of the press’s initiatives is Babette’s Feast (since 2011), a fortnightly dinner where writers gather to read and critique one another’s works. Through these sessions, promising new writers’s works are selected for publishing. The sessions have resulted in the publication of several chapbooks (a small booklet containing literary works).26

In 2013, the press began publishing Twenty-four Flavours, a series of collections of flash fiction by 24 local writers. It is slated to have 24 issues, with each issue focusing on a particular food.27

Birds & Co.
Birds & Co. is BooksActually’s stationery brand. Some of its popular items include pencils printed with authors’s names, postcards and the handmade Marginalia Cahier. The Marginalia Cahier is a notebook designed for taking down quotes when reading a book and is small enough to be kept in the book.28 The store also sells knick-knacks and vintage items. A Birds & Co. store was opened in Orchard Cineleisure in 2010.29

8 Oct 2005:
Founded at Telok Ayer Street.

2006: Started Poetry du Blanc. Held Moleskine and Rhodia exhibitions.
2007: Included in The Straits Times Power List (The Arts). Held Species of Polaroids and Other Pieces.
2008: Moved to Ann Siang Hill. Opened Polymath & Crust. Held The Saddest Place on Earth.
2009: Moved into the Club Street premises of Polymath & Crust. Official bookstore for the Singapore Writers Festival. Held Writers Fringe.
2010: Launch and exhibition of Olympia Le-Tan collection. Held Shinzi Katoh Art Showcase. Opened Birds & Co. store in Orchard Cineleisure.
2011: Moved to Yong Siak Street. Held An Ode to Penguin at The Arts House. Start of Well-informed Wednesday talks. Math Paper Press started Babette’s Feast.
2012: Opened online store and produced documentary on itself.
19–20 Apr 2013: Opened for 24 hours.
2013: Math Paper Press started the Twenty-four Flavours series.

Jan Yap

1. Stephanie Yap, “BooksActually Turns One,” Straits Times, 28 November 2006, 7. (From NewspaperSG.)
2. Corrie Tan, “Actually, It’s Worth a Visit,” Straits Times, 23 February 2006, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Tan, “Actually, It’s Worth a Visit.”
4. Vimeo, BooksActually: The Documentary, produced by Colourbars Media, 2012, motion picture, 41:36.
5. Yap, “BooksActually Turns One.”
6. Vimeo, BooksActually: The Documentary.
7. Tan, “Actually, It’s Worth a Visit.”
8. Vimeo, BooksActually: The Documentary.
9. Stephanie Yap, “Bookworm Club,” Straits Times, 6 December 2007, 70. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “New Store? Yes, They're in Right Frame of Mind,” Straits Times, 31 May 2009, 56. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Clarissa Tan, “Independents’ Day,” Business Times, 7 November 2009, 35. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Vimeo, BooksActually: The Documentary.
13. BooksActually, Facebook, 3 October 2021.
14. BooksActually.
15. “Bookworms,” Straits Times, 1 February 2007, 60. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Corrie Tan, “Noteworthy Exhibits,” Straits Times, 8 June 2006, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Yap, “BooksActually Turns One.”
18. Gareth Goh, “Shutterbugs,” Today, 11 July 2007, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Mayo Martin, “Dolling It Up,” Today, 6 December 2008, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Tan, “Independents’ Day.”
21. BooksActually, “Olympia Le-Tan Handbags & Minaudières,” BooksActually (blog), 22 November 2010; BooksActually, “Shinzi Katoh Art Showcase,” BooksActually (blog), 4 December 2010.
22. Mayo Martin, “Page Turners,” Today, 27 June 2011, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
23. BooksActually, “An Ode to Penguin,” BooksActually (blog), 30 May 2011.
24. BooksActually, “The 24-Hour Bookstore Event,” Facebook, 19 April 2013.
25. Stephanie Yap, “A Fairy Tale Goes to Press,” Straits Times, 17 May 2007, 60. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Babette’s Feast,” BooksActually, last retrieved 2011.
27. “Twenty-Four Flavours,” BooksActually, last retrieved 2013.
28. Vimeo, BooksActually: The Documentary.
29. Rachael Boon, “Paper Trail,” Straits Times, 8 May 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 28 January 2014 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.