Passion is not enough. You need commitment.
“Business is not just about passion: passion only brings you along that much. There are people who decide they want to be a doctor in their early 20s and go through the process and they are still doctors at 60. A person who has chosen a vocation has chosen to do it for life. If you want to open a café, have you seen the timeline? Do you see yourself running the business when you are 87 years old?
“The first two years at this shop were so challenging! It made us think—are we really cut out for this? We just had to snap out of it and remind ourselves that this was a commitment we had made: to open the doors every day, show up, and work our way through it.”
Higher margins with higher risk
“The book trade has suffered from old business models where you take things on consignment and the distributor gives you about 30% of the net profit. You don’t have to pay them anything till you sell the books. This has always been the model as there is little risk: you don’t have to come up with the money first. However, a small bookshop like ours will never get the traffic and sales volume of bigger bookshops, so we decided to buy the books and asked the supplier for 40% instead of 30% per book.
“Once we buy the books, not everything will sell—there are hits and misses—but it puts you in the mode of selling. We are very pressurized to sell because it is ours and we can’t return it, so it forces us to be committed to the titles, display them prominently, and use promotions. We try not to shelve all the books: we have them facing outwards for a more visual experience.
“We are always looking for titles that are meaningful and worthwhile, and then hope everything sells; after all, we can’t return them, no way.”
Reconciling the print trade with environmental sustainability
“I recently read a book called The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds by Diane Ackerman. Environmental sustainability concerns me, and the effort to push it forward should start with each of us.
“The irony of course is that I sell books, so trees get cut down, but I make an effort to publish books using local Singapore printers that use renewable sources, and I am much more alert to the way we use and consume things.
“To be honest, a part of me is lazy, so I own just one pair of shoes because I am too lazy to own 2, 3, 4 or 5 pairs and have to think about whether to wear this today— or wear that tomorrow. This laziness has helped me cut down my consumption.
“Ultimately, it is about demand and supply: if you want less, the supply will be less. To make shoes like this, the basic material is cloth, leather, rubber or synthetic rubber and plastic—for which you need palm oil—and we can see the pressure it puts on plantations, and the resulting haze that hangs over our city. The impact of consumerism has triggered me to be more watchful about what we use and consume every day.”
Creating a shop where everyone in the community can belong
“From the outside looking in, people see this bookshop as a niche business with a target market, but we don’t see the point of operating that way. I mean, Singaporeans are well-educated and read books, so whether you are 8 or 88 years old, I should be able to find you a book that you will enjoy.
“To me, it is like selling chocolates: why would I sell chocolates assuming it is only for university students, or women with high disposable income? What about the grandma in the neighbourhood? If you want high-end options, I can provide a premium selection for you, but I should also provide something that everyone can enjoy.
“Think about it. In the past, the provision shop served everyone. There were no supermarkets. Poor and rich all went to their local shopkeeper who served the whole demographic. Why do businesses believe so much in niche targeting?”
Thank you, Kenny, for an illuminating glimpse into what it takes to run a bookshop! You can see Kenny almost any day at the BooksActually shop in Tiong Bahru (Singapore). Go there; and go wild!
Check out BooksActually online!
If you love books, you’ll love @BooksActually!
This interview is featured in a coffeetable book showcasing small business owners from diverse trades in Singapore. The gorgeous publication was sponsored by the Singapore Business Federation and SG50 Celebration Fund with a cover design from Paperplane, a visual storytelling studio based in Singapore.
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners around the world, sharing their stories and insights. You can connect with the community on Instagram and Facebook @ShopkeeperStories