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Kenny Chan, Store and merchandising director at Books Kinokuniya.

Kenny Chan

Store and merchandising director at Books Kinokuniya
Apr 22, 2017 5:50 AM

Sixteen years, 4 months, and 12 days. That's exactly how long Kenny Chan has worked for Books Kinokuniya at the time we spoke to him. The white-headed lanky 65-year-old has been in the book business since 1983, with stints at publishing and retail companies such as Popular, MPH Bookstores, and SNP Publishing. Now, Mr Chan is the store and merchandising director for the Japanese bookstore chain, which has outlived its biggest competitor from the West - Borders.

An avid book lover himself, it's no surprise that Mr Chan has ended up where he is, but it wasn't a path that he had set out on at all. He studied economics and political science (plus a minor in English literature) at the National University of Singapore, so his first job was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he had worked with heavyweights like Lee Kuan Yew, and S. R. Nathan.

"So far everyone has assumed I wanted to be a bookseller, which I did at one point, but like most kids I actually went through phases of wanting to be this and that. I could have been a pastor with a wife singing about China Wine, or a president with a daughter in national security. But instead, life led me to this state," he chuckles.

You've worked at many different bookstores and publishers, what made Kinokuniya different?

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At the time when Borders was still around, the best example I can give is that Borders is like McDonalds. While Kino was like a cosmopolitan food court. At Borders you could only get burgers, but at Kino you could get everything - sushi, mee rebus, you name it. There's variety, because every country we're in, we make sure we support the culture of that country.

The clincher for me was that during my interview, the chairman - who had come all the way from Tokyo - asked me just one question that until now flummoxes me. He asked: "Do you like books?"

That's the only question he gave me! All the previous interviewers had asked me things like how will you increase the ROI of this company, and one even bargained with me over my salary. This guy got me because he didn't care about anything else, he just wanted to make sure the guy running his Singapore office was a book person.

How about your personal history? Did you love books as a kid?

Yes, all of us introverts are big readers. I read all genres from fiction to non-fiction. I loved comics. Poetry was my other love. Actually I loved everything lah, books were a big part of my life. Thanks to the National Library.

What sparked my interest in book-selling actually was when I once won a literature prize which was a book voucher for MPH. That started my quest to be a bookseller which I didn't realise until much later. I wanted to be the book manager for MPH at Stamford Road. I achieved that dream around 1987. Sounds like a fairytale, but it really happened.

What's your favourite book and why?

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I used to re-read it every year.

I love it because of the aptitude of the writer. The style of the writer. Her way with words is incredible. Pride and Prejudice is about a universal theme of life - relationships. The boy girl. It's the ultimate rom-com. It's life in miniature. And you want war, there's also a bit of that through the military men figures.

Do you believe that people who don't read can get interested in reading?

Let me put it this way. If you want to get your child interested in reading, don't give them things they don't want to read. Give them things they are interested in - whether it's dinosaurs, or fart books. Get them interested in the medium, then when it becomes comfortable to them, they will accept it.

My concept is "no brow". It's not about high brow or low brow, books must be accessible..

Kinokuniya actively supports local literature - by giving prominent shop space to local titles, and being a part of events like Singapore Writer's Festival - what is your take on Singapore writers? How do we fare next to foreign literature?

Over the last few years, local literature has improved a lot. Partly because of growing interest, partly fuelled by authorities and the book-selling community. The culmination was when Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye won national awards, and was picked as one of the best books of 2016 by The Economist.

And this year we have a few people making it big. The rights to Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows have already been sold to make into a film, Cheryl Tan's Sarong Party Girls has been a top 10 seller for the last half a year - a record for a local book, and of course Kevin Kwan's movie is coming out soon.

I think all this has not only raised awareness, it has also raised the self-confidence of local writers in their own abilities.

So what's the future of books in your opinion?

I think the traditional book will always hold its place in the world. Maybe not to the extent as in the past, but I think it will still retain its original form and spirit. It won't change much because humans are physical beings. We cannot escape physicality. In fact, the only way we can escape physicality is through reading.

So even 200 years on, I think people will still be reading. Whether through virtual reality, direct implants, or maybe even swallowing a pill to absorb an entire book - though where's the pleasure in that?