This S'porean gave 19 years of his life to Kinokuniya & turned it into a place for all S'poreans

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | January 11, 2020, 12:17 PM

At the end of Dec. 2019, Kenny Chan retired from his role as Books Kinokuniya's Asia-Pacific senior store and merchandising director.

Speaking to Mothership, he reflects on the past 19 years with Kinokuniya, including key milestones, observations and insights from managing the store.

Chan also shares why he is optimistic about the future of Kinokuniya in Singapore, despite a trend of e-reading, declining physical book-buying, rising rents and online book shopping.

Kenny Chan, Kinokuniya Photo by Juan Ezwan.

Let’s talk about the past 19 years you’ve spent in Kinokuniya. What were some highlights?

Reflecting back, my 19 years in Kinokuniya were quite exciting. First, we beat Borders. Secondly, we made this store world-class.

Historically, this marks the 50th year of Kinokuniya venturing overseas to San Francisco; that’s 1969. That’s the first ever overseas store, so this year is the 50th anniversary.

Singapore is the regional headquarters for Kinokuniya Asia Pacific, so all the stores that opened in this region were opened by me, my team and my bosses here. We opened KL, Sydney, so many... Dubai, Bangkok (Siam Paragon) store, and we helped in the Japanese stores and the New York store.

And which is the most memorable store?

The most memorable one would be the one here, because we've seen the store grow from strength to strength, and more importantly, we've seen the people grow from strength to strength. I think that’s the most important one.

But I think the most challenging store that we opened was the Dubai store. Because it was an entirely new environment, with multi-various groups of people from all around the world comprising the team that we have.

Among bookstores and bookstore management, I think you are definitely one of the most supportive local bookstore managers in Singapore. So I think many local authors can say that you had faith in them, when many others didn’t. Your proactive promoting really helped a lot in their journeys in Singapore.

That is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever experienced in my twilight years, especially. Because I’ve seen so many authors grow from strength to strength. My favourite is now the highly respected playwright, poet, writer, and that is Alfian Sa’at.

But there are many other authors I can mention as well: Amanda Lee Koe, Rachel Heng, Sharlene Teo, AJ Low. Of course, not forgetting the old cast, like Catherine Lim, Suchen Christine Lim, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. So many, so many.

Of course, political commentators as well. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye propelled Singapore to the top of the literary stratosphere in terms of graphic novels and even as a literary work.

And this all bears testament to the fact that with a good bookshop, providing the range, these authors can survive and thrive. And I’m not only talking about Kinokuniya, we have other good bookshops.

My favourite independent bookshop is Books Actually, and they have showcased local talent, they have placed money where their mouth is, and they have published them!

Plus the fact that the National Arts Council, directly and indirectly still helps a lot; the National Library, MOE, etc. They are all part and parcel of the drive to push cultural works to the forefront.

We have the talent. We also have the advantage of the inter-mingling of different cultures. Being at the crossroad, that actually helps to gestate a lot more interesting works in the future. So that will not change.

What are your reflections on managing the store, and the future of it? Are you worried about it?

We have come a long way, we have amassed a reservoir of knowledge in book-selling around the world.

We also have quite a solid team. Whether they are in merchandising, or operations, or logistics, or public relations or accounting, they’ve been with Kino from the beginning.

I joined Kinokuniya in 2001, which was two years after the opening of the main store. So, reflecting back, they are the heart of Kinokuniya.

The future remains sanguine in my humble opinion. The connection between books, physical books, and people can be maintained, as long as Kinokuniya has a brand and can connect with the people.

And the future bodes well; the connection between the young and books has not been broken. And we will continually connect with the young.

So what do you think younger people are interested in these days?

Themselves. Things they are interested in... This depends on their influencers; their earliest influencers could be their parents, hopefully. The other influencers can be their peer group, social media.

You learned this in the publishing business?

I am forever listening to stuff, trying to siphon the noise and filter it.

Hopefully I’m a good listener. Listening is underrated. Because when you listen, you can hear the world, and the things around the world.

What are some observations you have had of young people in Kinokuniya?

They are equally fervent in their passion for the arts, for books; they are much more informed (Interviewer: than you?), much more opinionated. And I think this is a good thing. Why I say they are much more informed is because the world is at their fingertips through the screen.

They adapt very easily.

And what about the staff who were with you from the beginning or whom you remember and miss? Are there any in particular you’d like to mention?

That is a good question. Very hard, because they are all my children; every one of them is equally precious and important to me and to grow the company. So I would rather not mention anyone in particular; but my main source of inspiration still remains the two founders of Kinokuniya.

So basically, Mr Moichi Tanabe, he is the founder of Kinokuniya, and his successor, Mr Osamu Matsubara, who started in 1950, but he was instrumental in launching all the overseas stores. Including the one in 1969, which was 19 years after he joined.

I mean, even your team, or like, just the people you slaved it out with, spent really late nights with...

All of them. That one damn hard to say. ​Lemme think about that one.

About your failures and mistakes... you said you made some. I was wondering if you would be able to reflect on some of these, and how you feel about them all.

Failures are something I love to talk about, because we all make mistakes.

In buying, there will always be mistakes. Complacency is a part of it also.

A good example would be Fantastic Beasts, by JK Rowling. When the book came out, we all thought it would do fantastically well, partly because it was written by, the script was written by JK Rowling. But it did not work out that way, for whatever reason.

Other mistakes ahh... Wow. Oh, that happened very early in my life as a merchandiser in my earlier days — I was seduced by a salesman who boosted my ego and led me to order too much.

Never let ego get in the way of business decisions. Because we all have egos. We have to control that and contain it.

That lesson stayed with me for a long time. There were five zeroes in that order. That was a big mistake. My mentor probably saw it coming, but I’m amazed by some of my teachers, the allowance they gave me in terms of making mistakes. I’m not so kind as my teachers and mentors.

What is your method of controlling or containing your ego?

Trying to be humble. But it is very hard! (joking la) I mean, maintaining your humility is very important. Not only in business, but in life actually.

Humility is a very underrated virtue which we all have to remember.

You’re an avid fan of reading yourself, reading more than 200 books a year(!). How do you personally prioritise reading in your life?

It’s part of my life, so it’s not a priority — it’s a way of life. I wake up, I try to read something. Which I do, which is the newspapers, since I was young.

If you look at successful people (and I won’t consider myself one), they all read a lot. Because in reading, you expose yourself to the world. And you expose yourself to yourself.

When you read, certain things you internalise definitely will show through your views. You are more aware of a lot of things.

Even fiction is very important, because you are going into the hearts and minds and souls of people that you will never meet in real life.

Because what is life about? It’s about connecting everybody. And reading is a shortcut to that. How many people can you meet? In a book you can go into depth with a whole lot of people, with whom you will never have a chance to meet.

What do you think of e-books and Kindles?

I prefer the physical. I think a lot of human beings today still prefer the physical thing.

Let me quote you an example. Like the Korean band, BTS. All they did was mention what they liked in terms of books they read, and one of them mentioned Damien by Herman Hesse. And that enabled a lot of the BTS fans who may not be reading to actually go into physical books.

They were inspired by something their idol loves, and they wanted this tangible item. Human beings crave the physical if it’s something they are passionate about.

It’s like choosing a Kindle. Because there are things you want to read, and then discard. But things you want to keep, like the Bible, the Koran, or the Art of War, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, the poems of Alfian Sa’at, you definitely want physical copies! (Sorry, I know that’s a plug. I’m always plugging.)

So that’s the reason you still fervently believe that bookstores are not going anywhere?

Bookstores have to adapt to the changes. That’s why I said working with the young becomes more challenging. Because they are more conscious of the environment so they may see paper and books in a different way.

But there will be a group of people who are passionate about books, and I don’t think they will run away from the physical.

Here’s where the challenge lies. The existence of physical bookshops is very important in cultivating the new generation of readers who can be passionate about things physical. Not in terms of the books itself, but the whole experience of being in the bookshop.

And Kino has transcended that bookshop image. We are a place that you see as being cool, it’s a place you want to be connected to because you can be seen to be sophisticated and well-read, or just plain cool.

And I think that’s important. The connection of the brand, with the customer.

You have summarised what you believed to be your legacy and your contributions. What do you hope will stay in Kino, or in Singapore, or the literary scene, based on everything you’ve done?

Love, and support all things, all good words, especially Singaporean words.

Help nurture it, help expose it, help to promote it. Because we are as good as anyone else. And of course, we should not denigrate the works of others as well, because they are equally good.

And what’s next for you?

I just agreed to a non exclusive consultancy agreement with Kino for one year.

Top photo by Juan Ezwan.