Many supporters of the local iconic independent bookstore BooksActually were surprised at the alleged misconduct that happened at this 16-year-old institution, after Rice Media published an expose on Saturday (25 Sep) regarding owner Kenny Lek’s dubious past relationships with young female employees.
Kenny Leck, 43, is said to be “relinquishing sole ownership of BooksActually and Math Paper Press, and transfer collective ownership of both entities to the team” according to a statement posted on BooksActually’s Facebook on Sunday morning by the five current BooksActually team, aka the “book elves.”
Employee to wife
One of the biggest revelations in the article came from an interview with Renée Ting, a former employee who was in a relationship with him for six years. According to the interview, Renée was 19 in 2011 when she began working for Kenny and his then girlfriend Karen Wai, with whom he founded BooksActually.
After they broke up, Renée and Kenny entered into a relationship, just as he was breaking off a relationship with another young employee! Not only was she paid very little and late as an employee, she stopped drawing a salary when they were dating. She also started living in the bookstore, which became her entire world (and as an excuse by Kenny to not pay her salary).
Like the other staff members, she worked long hours with little designated breaks, and often ate lunch at the store standing up. She endured all this because she believed in the bookstore’s cause, and in Kenny according to the article.
After barely a year of courtship, they got married in October 2016 and divorced in early 2017.
But even while he was married to Renée, Kenny would be flirting with other young female employees. For example, he would be sending various emails to them from unofficial accounts. He also made advances on another young female employee several times in order to try to get her to date him.
After the divorce, Kenny was involved with another young female employee who was 20 at the time. Artist Cheryl Charli Tan, now 23, recently came out to write about her own experience at BooksActually:
Other bad behaviour
Most of the employees at BooksActually tended to be young women between the transitional ages of 19-21, many of them working with low pay and long hours with no designated breaks. While some of the women endured for the dream, many feared speaking up for fear of reprisals. Kenny was known to have mood swings – warm one moment, and cold the next, according to Cheryl’s statement.
In light of these accusations, Singapore’s bastion of indie bookstore seems like it was built on the invisible labour and manipulation of young women.
According to his Facebook post, writer Alfian Sa’at says that he plans to donate a portion of his advance from his poetry collection The Invisible Manuscript (published by Math Paper Press in 2012) to the women who spoke up. He says: “I am doing this because it feels terrible to know that because I was paid as an author, this resulted in less pay for staff who were stocking and selling my books.”
The piece has undoubtedly rocked the local literary scene, with many in the industry calling for support of these women, and reiterating that it is important to separate the bookstore from the authors it has supported over the years.
In the meantime, Kenny is denying all allegations of his misconduct.