An Interview with the BooksActually Elves & Cats
What are the best and worst parts of being a BooksActually Elf (or Cat)?
Billie: Best part? The books. Worst part? So many books, so little time.
Cake: Meow. (Best part is getting to scratch hoomanz.)
Jamie: Best – I love being able to help people find their dream books, and have them love the recommendations we pick out. It’s so fulfilling (I imagine myself as Sima from Indian Matchmaking). I am also very lucky to work with people that I can trust immensely. Worst – Being tempted by so many good books everyday and I can never seem to find the time to read as much as I want to.
Kenny: The best? I am blessed with an extended family that has kept me going through the years. The worst? I am still the designated light bulb changer, dead cockroach picker-upper / live cockroach killer, and toilet cleaner after 15 years. But with my perverse nature, I take immense pride in all three duties.
Nadiah: The best parts: The team I work with. The cozy, welcoming vibe of the bookstore. The constant exposure to new titles, authors and genres. The worst parts: The morning commute. I just never seem to get used to it.
Nikita: Best – Awesome working environment and team, being surrounded by so many books. Worst – Emails, paper/cardboard cuts, the urge to keep buying books.
How has Covid-19, the Circuit Breaker, and safe-distancing measures impact your work?
Billie: I don't interact with as many people anymore, by that I mean face to face interaction. I do miss that sometimes, very rarely (emphasis on very) but I do, especially when I find myself in a situation where an explanation is needed but words just can't convey what I'm trying to express. But at the end of the day, this pandemic has provided some kind of solitude at work, the kind I actually enjoy. So... yay?
Jamie: I feel as though we are busier now? Endless emails to respond to, orders to pack, photos to post on Instagram and Facebook, authors to schedule for our live chats etc. But it's a good kind of busy.
Kenny: As much as it has impacted you, the person reading this
Nikita: Well, we first had to start limiting the number of people in the store when safe-distancing measures were put in place. The team and I had to take turns guarding the door and making sure that we kept to the maximum number of customers allowed, which we have never done before. Then the Circuit Breaker kicked in and we had to close the physical store entirely. I had to work from home for a couple of weeks, so my work outline was completely different. I mostly managed the marketing side of things such as posting stories on Instagram, tweeting quotes and posting books on Facebook. It was a bit difficult to adjust at first, especially when I did not have access to the books to easily take a picture or find a quote. Then, when I came back, we were only running as an online store and that is obviously entirely different from running a physical bookstore.
Pico: Meow meow meow. (Hoomanz make us eat 1m apart and it's much harder for me to steal my siblings' food.)
BooksActually’s physical store has been closed for a few months now. What is one thing you miss the most about running the physical bookstore?
Billie: The babies or little human beings! I love kids even though they can be frustrating tiny devils.
Kenny: Nothing because I am wretched like that.
Nadiah: Strange as it may seem coming from an introvert, I miss interacting with customers. Talking to friendly and enthusiastic customers is really quite energising. The occasional fur baby that pops in while on a walk with their owners. The many events we hold at the bookstore. The general atmosphere of having customers in the store.
Nikita: The many events that we were a part of and have held. Those events really helped to switch things up a bit and gave us a break from routine. Our "Yong Siak Street Party: 2 Lit 2 Miss" was a great way to end the possibility of more of these events :")
Covid-19 has, for good or bad, imposed a great deal of digitalisation onto our routines and daily lives. Are there parts of the physical store experience you feel has not translated well to the online store experience?
Kenny: Definitely the book events that we used to have week in, week out. Nothing beats a literary event in a physical setting.
Nikita: I think one would be the experience of being in the store itself. A lot of customers enjoy coming into our bookstore due to the atmosphere and aesthetic. It is hard to replicate that through the online store. Another one would be when interacting with customers. Personally, I find it easier to interact with our customers face-to-face than through our phones. An upside to the digitalisation however, is that as we got more used to it, we were able to put out more content online, such as our "8 Questions with..." and The Book Clinic Instagram page.
Cake: Meow. (The part where I scratch you.)
What do you enjoy the most about operating the BooksActually online store?
Billie: Prepping customers' online orders. Not trying to brag but it's such an experience that... I get disappointed at how mundane my online purchases from other stores are.
Jamie: The best part is getting to sleep in on weekends.
Kenny: I can finally eat my lunch for as long as I want even though bad habits die hard. While running the physical bookstore, my lunch time is worth a speedy 5 minutes. I breathe in my food. The faster I finish, the faster there is an extra hand on deck to serve customers in the bookstore.
Nadiah: The activity of packing orders is quite therapeutic, besides being pretty straightforward. The workflow in general is much more streamlined, in a way. And we get to decorate everyone's packages and slot in free gifts for a more exciting purchasing experience from us!
Nikita: Being able to personalise the orders! From the packaging to small handwritten notes, it just makes the whole experience more personal, enjoyable and exciting. When customers share their positive experiences, be it on Instagram or email, it really brightens my day to know that we are still able to give a wholesome experience despite the physical store being closed.
What are your hopes for BooksActually?
Billie: To be further recognised for things other than how unique the bookstore was or how adorable the cats are. You know, things like the content we provide over on our Chowing Fat blog and social media platforms, or just how much we are doing for our customers.
Jamie: I hope it will forever be a home for all of us and for books, to constantly grow and evolve with the times, to always make sense of its potential, impacts and shortcomings.
Kenny: May it continue to be a safe space for everyone and everyone's ideas regardless of time and tide. May it keep walking the "literary walk" no matter how difficult the journey is. May it continue to be a beacon of light long after I am gone.
Nadiah: That business continues to flourish and that the store continues to be a source of comfort and reprieve for people to step away from their busy lives and everything that may bog them down. That BooksActually continues to keep the local arts scene alive be it by publishing local authors, advertising local reads on social media, or even spreading the word about other artists by way of interviews on our blog : )
Nikita: My hope is for BooksActually to be able to continue being a safe and comforting space for book lovers (or people in general) even when we are no longer running a physical bookstore and to come out of this time even stronger than before. Oh, and also to keep shining a light on our local writers, be it through Math Paper Press or by showcasing local content.
Lemon: *breathes audibly* (I hope it will always be where I can run free and have stacks of books as my scratching posts.)
dear Friends, Supporters, and Family of BooksActually,
2020 is probably the strangest year of all whether for an individual or a business entity like ours. It has been equal measures of stressful, pressurising, scary, and at the same time, provided us space and moments for self reflection and personal growth. At the end of the year, BooksActually turns 15 years old, and we are truly thankful that most of you have stuck with us on this one hell of a rollercoaster ride.
As the world changes around us, the bookstore has to move in tandem as well. As she ushers into her 15th year, BooksActually will transform fully into an Online Store. It is a new beginning for all of us, not just our team but also for you, accompanying us on this journey ahead. 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.
Going into this next lap, we hope to have your continued support and love. 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. Or at least where I am concerned, I am very certain that she, BooksActually will continue to be your "neighbourhood" bookstore long after I am gone.
When Singapore eventually turns the corner, and goes into Phase 3, we will bring back our weekly literary events too. I mean what is BooksActually without its annual #BuySingLit street party, and the truly maddening but iconic 24 Hour Bookstore and The World’s Loneliest Bookstore.
In the meantime, we hope you continue to stay safe and keep well. The bookstore, myself and the book elves will see you online as we look forward to more exciting bookselling adventures ahead. I will leave you with Suede's wise words from 'Saturday Night':
"it's gonna be alright 'cause tonight we'll go dancing, we'll go laughing, we'll get car sick, and it'll be okay like everyone says. It'll be alright and ever so nice. We're going out tonight, out and about tonight, oh, whatever makes her happy on a Saturday night, oh, whatever makes her happy, whatever makes it alright."
(former) Grinch of Yong Siak
(current) Grinch of the Internet