Books, Actually


I had been in Singapore for about a year before poet Cyril Wong recommended I check out BooksActually. I’d shopped at Borders and Books Kinokuniya and Select Books, as well as the smaller chains like Popular and Harris, but Cyril assured me that based on our few conversations (at the time; we’ve had many more since) and shared literary sensibilities, I’d find something unique at BooksActually.

So a week or two later, I looked them up, and found the store on Ann Siang Road, tucked into a space surrounded by upscale clothing boutiques, gastropubs, and fancy restaurants. It wasn’t a huge shop, but the shelves were packed, and their titles trended away from popular fiction and more toward those with a love for language. They also displayed lots of interesting knick-knacks, like old manual typewriters, vintage metal toys, instamatic cameras, and full runs of special Penguin paperback series.

I picked out a lovely Hesperus Press edition of Bulgakov’s A Dog’s Heart, and the young lady who rang me up did so with a smile, remarking that Hesperus always did a really nice job with their books. The owners of the shop, Karen Wai and Kenny Leck, were not in that day, but I was to meet them later.

On my next visit, some months later, that same employee was working, and almost as soon as I walked in the door, she said, “Hi! You’re the one who bought that Hesperus Bulgakov, right? We have another one, if you’re interested.”

I was stunned and mightily impressed. In my history of shopping at bookstores, never (and this includes Quail Ridge Books, my all-time favorite bookstore in the USA) has an employee remembered me after a months-long absence, remembered the book I last purchased, and then recommended another similar title all in the same breath. It was astonishing, and in that moment I became a superfanboy of BooksActually for life. (I also bought the book she recommended: The Fatal Eggs.)

(And I wish I could remember who this young lady was, but I just can’t. I don’t think she even works at the store anymore. Whoever you are, awesome person, thank you.)

As I say, eventually I met Karen and Kenny, and we became fast friends. They agreed to let Janet and me launch A Field Guide to Surreal Botany at the store, and have, since the book’s publication, faithfully kept copies of it in stock. They invited me and Janet to various other literary events hosted both at the store and elsewhere. Last year, they agreed to publish my first fiction collection, Red Dot Irreal, through their imprint Math Paper Press (forthcoming in June September). In sum, they made me feel as if I had a literary home in Singapore, which was something I’d dearly been missing since moving from the US.


They’ve moved twice since my early visits, once into a three-storey shophouse at Club Street around the corner from Ann Siang Road, and again recently to Yong Siak Street in the heart of Tiong Bahru (one of Singapore’s oldest neighborhoods). A week ago, they celebrated their grand reopening with an all-day sale and then a nighttime party with wine (and ginger-ale for vinophobes like me) and cheeses and bite-sized eclairs. I posted my photos of the event on Facebook. The new location is far and away the best space that I’ve seen for the store, the biggest advatage being the actual space itself; at last, there is a feeling being able to breathe easy, to traverse the aisles without worrying about bumping into someone else. It’ll be a great venue for upcoming events.

Jeremy Tan at Rediscover Singapore recently paid his own visit to the new store, and provided a wonderful write-up, accompanied by a beautifully shot video and series of photographs that provide a sense of the quirkiness of the store’s (and its owners’) sensibilities.


Big congratulations to Karen and Kenny and all of BooksActually’s staff on their gorgeous new home. Long may you stay and feed the heart of Singapore’s literary culture.

(All photographs are copyright © by Rediscover Singapore.)


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