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Business Advice

BooksActually twists plot to create success

With double-digit growth and multiple subsidiaries, it is no longer just a bookstore
The Straits Times - March 14, 2012
By: Yunita Ong
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BooksActually twists plot to create success Co-founder Kenny Leck, 34, at BooksActually's flagship store in Tiong Bahru. -- ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

OWNING a bookstore is every bibliophile's dream but it has been far from a fairytale for entrepreneurs Kenny Leck and Karen Wai.

The early chapters of their shop BooksActually were marked by missteps, a faulty business plan and a too-low profile in the market.

But the independent bookstore has since turned things around, racking up about 20 per cent growth and $200,000 in net profit last year. BooksActually now hires three full-time and two part-time staff.

That would have seemed an improbable plot twist back in 2005 when Mr Leck, 34, and Ms Wai, 27, combined their savings of $40,000 and set up BooksActually on the second floor of a Telok Ayer shophouse.

It housed just 1,000 books and struggled to gain visibility.

'It was empty - of people, of books, of everything. It was common to see one or two days without any sales. For the first four years, we did not draw salaries at all,' Mr Leck says.

That forced the first change in the business plan.

The owners realised they could not survive by selling literature alone and started a stationery brand, Birds & Co, in 2005.

Birds & Co's vintage stationery and knick-knacks like glass bottles and PEZ candy containers - 90 per cent are sourced locally - brought in customers looking for products with an olde- world feel.

The unit accounted for 5 per cent of BooksActually's revenue, helping the firm creep out of the red in 2007.

In 2008, Mr Leck and Ms Wai moved from their Telok Ayer site to a 900 sq ft single-storey unit at Ann Siang Hill.

Although the rent of $7,000 a month took up a significant chunk of BooksActually's monthly $9,000 gross profit, the new location in a retail belt gave BooksActually the traffic to grow.

Growth and profit shot up by 50 per cent between 2008 and 2009.

The owners continued expanding their business in late 2008, establishing Polymath & Crust, a bookshop specialising in non-fiction. The store in nearby Club Street brought in 40 per cent of BooksActually's income in 2009.

However, high rent forced the owners to move the Ann Siang operation to Club Street in 2009.

Another rental hike prompted a shift to their current location in Tiong Bahru last March and the establishment of BooksActually's publishing arm, Math Paper Press, in October.

'When the landlord raised our rents again, we realised a desperate need to secure BooksActually's future by doing things that would bring about more revenue,' says Mr Leck, now the sole owner after Ms Wai left to pursue other interests.

'Only then would we be able to purchase a space we could call our own in the future.'

Math Paper Press boasts a short gestation period for publication of less than three months and covers designed by the owners.

These features appealed to more established writers like Cyril Wong and yet-unpublished ones like Christine Chia.

Math Paper Press' publications range from anthologies to pocket-sized booklets called chapbooks, and from plays to poetry.

All of Math Paper Press' books have been profitable.

BooksActually has distinguished itself from bigger bookstores with a niche segment in local literature; it houses 100 titles, the largest collection in Singapore.

The bookstore stocks local titles that are already out of print. It hunts down the writers for leftover copies from decades ago.

BooksActually bolsters demand by displaying them prominently and by holding book launches and events.

'People often say there is no demand for local literature in Singapore. But that is because booksellers often tuck them away from sight. It is a myth that local literature cannot sell - and my account books prove that,' Mr Leck says.

Despite taking up just 5 per cent of the store's collection, local literature comprises about 30 per cent of BooksActually's weekly sales.

BooksActually also cultivates an image of being a bookstore that knows its books well. The staff are expected to be able to locate books without referring to a database and make customised book recommendations.

These strategies have carved out BooksActually's reputation as being more than just another 'cookie-cutter' bookstore, helping the bookstore survive in a tough industry dominated by much bigger players.

BooksActually sells about 1,000 books a week while Birds and Co accounts for 30 per cent of revenue and Polymath & Crust speaks for 50 per cent.

BooksActually will further its publishing operations and add more book titles to its collection.

As it continues to grow, BooksActually will not lose sight of its founding philosophy of being a place, as Mr Leck notes, 'where people can come to discover something new'.




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