The first time I visited BooksActually, it was four years ago. I remember it fondly.
I remember observing its niche collection of books of mostly local fiction and poetry titles. I remember venturing into a cosy backroom that sold little notebooks, stationery and vintage souvenirs. And I definitely remember the resident furballs that roamed freely around the shop!
The independent bookstore was a quaint, hipster place where cats and people coexisted, just like the diverse authors whose books lined its shelves. Though I did not make a purchase then, I left the store with a newfound interest and curiosity (who are these Singaporean authors and why hadn’t I heard of them before?)
That was one of my first exposures to Singlit.
Death of brick-and-mortar
Just last week, BooksActually announced that it was closing its physical store at Yong Siak Street and going fully online. Though it was not unexpected – considering the slew of closures of brick-and-mortar book shops like Borders, Page One and MPH in recent years, compounded with the economic impact of Covid-19 – I felt a tinge of sadness upon hearing the news.
In the four years since I first visited BooksActually, I’ve dipped my toes into Singlit and discovered that it is not as abstract or atas as I used to think it was.
As someone with close to no literature background, I would discover that I could appreciate local poetry (they were lived experiences of people and places I could relate to as a Singaporean), and even started writing pieces of my own, with a glimmer of hope that one day they would find a home in a bookstore like BooksActually.
Sadly, that possibility is now one step further.
But BooksActually, which turns 15 this year, contrary to its name, is more than just a shop selling books, actually.
Like many other local bookstores, it is also a social space where like-minded people gather – from the curious passerby to the loyal customer, from those who read to those who write to those who aspire to write.
It is a place for events such as book launches and bazaars, meet-the-author sessions and workshops that promote appreciation of the literary arts and culture in Singapore.
It has become a home for the literary community, as evident from the outpouring of responses on social media by people whose lives the venerable bookstore has touched. A group of local artists from Urban Sketchers even made a final visit to BooksActually last week to commemorate it in drawings.
Stories that celebrate inclusivity
BooksActually, together with Epigram Books and Ethos Books (both operating online), has been actively involved in #BuySingLit since its launch in 2017, an industry-led movement to celebrate stories from Singapore by encouraging the community to read books by homegrown authors, including those written in Malay, Tamil and Chinese.
Singapore’s literary scene has come a long way. There are now more writers and a greater volume and diversity in literary content, not to mention more books that shine a light on social causes and tell the stories of those who have fallen through the cracks.
These include Teo You Yenn’s essays on poverty in This Is What Inequality Looks Like (2018), stories of migrant workers told in Me Migrant (2016) by Md Mukul Hossine and Liyana Dhamirah’s memoir Homeless (2019).
The anthology Call and Response (2019), published under BooksActually’s publishing arm, Math Paper Press, gathers the voices of more than thirty migrant poets, and pairs them with a creative response from the same number of local writers.
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And in Singapore’s first migrant literature festival in December last year, four books written by migrant workers were launched.
Local literary arts not only provide an avenue for expression but mutual understanding. It provides opportunities to nurture empathy. It encourages inclusivity, providing alternative voices to help shape the narrative of the country.
Another local independent bookstore The Moon has a strong commitment to inclusivity. At least half of the books at The Moon are by women authors, with an especial focus on writers of colour, reinforcing its belief, now more than ever, in the importance of safe spaces that celebrate the value of diversity and multiculturalism.
Furthermore, there are new talents and fresh voices emerging in the literary scene.
27-year-old Marylyn Tan was the first female winner to be awarded the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry last month for her debut collection Gaze Back (2018).
Novelist and author of Ministry of Moral Panic (2013) Amanda Lee Koe is another much talked about name in the industry. Her debut novel’s originality and boldness awarded her the title of youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction in 2014.
Building a Singlit community
Now that bookstores are shutting its doors, what will happen to this growing, vibrant community?
And the more pertinent question is, is there a space for the literary arts in Singapore?
My answer is yes, but perhaps not in a way that we are accustomed to seeing.
Let’s take BooksActually as an example. If it is truly a home for the literary community, then since a home is made of people, it will continue to exist no matter whether it is online or offline. In fact, BooksActually actually (sorry!) reported a rise in online sales as a result of its drive to go virtual.
According to the National Arts Council’s latest Population Survey On The Arts, even before Covid-19 drove arts content and consumption online, three out of four Singaporeans were consuming arts via digital media in 2019.
Literary arts showed the largest jump in online participation, climbing 30 percentage points from 2017 to 39 per cent in 2019.
Some may call me a dinosaur (or simply stubborn) because I refuse to let anyone buy me a Kindle. I need to read a physical copy of a book (or else it’s not a book to me).
But I too realise that times are changing as we adjust to the new Covid-19 normal, where almost all meetings and events are held virtually.
Some might say that the younger generation are less interested in reading and are constantly glued to their smartphones, but I would argue that young people are more literate with text than ever today. The difference is that they consume and explore the written word differently, engaging with words in a different medium.
Building a thriving Singlit community is a matter of evolving with the changes around us, whether it is upgrading our digital skills for the Smart Nation or finding new ways to engage readers and customers.
Co-founder of BooksActually Kenny Leck wrote in a post on Facebook on 13 Sep: “As horrible as the pandemic has been, it has also given BooksActually its ‘Online Store Sea Legs’. After nearly half a year of being solely an online store, we are now ready to make it a reality.”
He added that “regardless of the uncertainties or vulnerabilities this year of change has imposed on all of us, one thing we know for sure is that the bookstore will be here for a very long time,” and went on to promise that when Singapore eventually goes into Phase 3, BooksActually will bring back its weekly literary events.
With every end, there is also a beginning.
Our stories will go on. We will create new narratives inspired from the old. We will carve out a space for future generations and they will have their own stories to tell. We will be a city of readers and writers whose stories continue to inspire Singaporeans.
Physical or not, I am confident there is and will be a space for the literary arts in Singapore, but we have to carve it and let it take its own shape for our generation and the next. We need even more to support local bookstores and artists now, because if we don’t write our stories, who will?