Borders had come and gone, while Books Kinokuniya remains one of the largest, if not the largest commercial book store in Singapore. But then there is BooksActually flying its independent flag from the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood now, where once it was moving around the city centre, and is possibly the last dedicated brick and mortar bastion championing local literature, amongst other obscure and critical literary works from around the world. Avid readers here will probably know where the quaint little bookstore actually is, otherwise here's a map for your navigation:
Founded by Kenny Leck and Karen Wai, BooksActually: The Documentary tells the story of the entrepreneurs' struggles and their beginnings, to what the store is actually today, complete with its spin offs such as their publishing arm Math Paper Press, and their stationery brand Birds & Co, where you can get beautiful hand-stitched notebooks. You cannot learn better than from the horses' mouths direct, in talking heads styled interviews conducted with the founders, as well as staff, friends, supporters and suppliers, giving their own perspective to what makes BooksActually tick, and rock.
One may question the objectivity of such a documentary, after all, one of the executive producers is Leck himself, but I guess that embodies the indie spirit, of not sitting and mucking around waiting for things to happen, but to take things into one's own hands, and get out there to create opportunities. And going by the various focus areas that BooksActually got itself into, such as publishing and stationery making, there is no lack of ideas or the will to fulfilling niche chances, for survival through varying revenue streams, as well as to grow the business.
And that also extended to being a platform, or a venue, for book launches, book readings, meet-the-author sessions, and a whole lot of other activities as can be seen from its busy Calendar of Events. Step inside the shop, and you'll be amazed that it's a space that's tranquil for the avid reader, or the newbie, to be amongst the esteemed company of authors from far and wide, in a place decorated with trinkets from days past. I guarantee that besides browsing the shelves for books, your eyes will roam the premises for the many knick-knacks found scattered around, which were beautifully captured by the filmmakers here.
But it's not all fine and dandy, with the independent route being a tough one in forging one's own destiny, especially in a place like land-scarce Singapore where small tenants are forever at the mercy of landlords / landowners, and dependent on the goodwill of the supply chain. And this film has no lack of interviewees, from content producers to suppliers who provide testament to various issues highlighted as stumbling blocks, to provide a more expansive narrative, in addition to also keeping it focused as the introductory 101 to BooksActually, kept to under an hour (and making it suitable for an hour's broadcast if necessary).
What this documentary serves to offer, is that behind the scenes look into the brief backgrounds of the founders, their motivations, the collective tenacity of the team which brought them to where they are today, and their continued struggle to keep BooksActually afloat despite challenges coming from various directions - limited resources, rent, and competition from other bookstores both traditional and those online. The film also provided that slight glimpse into the state of the publishing industry here through nuggets of information fed by those from the industry, while serving to highlight that the local writing community can be proud to have a location that has grown a foothold in championing local literature, sharing the same never-say-die attitude to have a worthy, local voice heard.
You can view the entire 41:36 documentary from Vimeo:
And for a bricks and mortar company, there sure do have an impressive web presence. Click on some of the links below to learn more, but equally important is to make that trip down to the shop, and check it out yourself if you haven't done so. Here's a map in case you need directions on how to get there.
- BooksActually Website
- Birds & Co Website
- Math Paper Press Website
- BooksActually Facebook Page
- For those on Twitter
- The Blog of BooksActually