We’re taught to look out for monsters since young. They teach us that monsters look different, look strange, look dangerous. But the truth adults never tell is that often the monsters aren’t hiding under your bed. They walk among us instead.
Singapore’s independent bookstore BooksActually has been a haven for all Singaporean book lovers and more. However, last Saturday (25th September) dark secrets were dragged to light by none other than the founder’s ex-wife, Renée Ting. Her story has shaken the foundation of their community and has started efforts to repair the damages.
BooksActually was founded by couple Kenny Leck (28) and Karen Wai (21) in 2005. Karen was in charge of brand design, while Kenny took over the administration of the business. It was a dreamy haven, both for the staff and for its customers. Its quiet comfort was what drew 19-year-old Renée to it initially. However, her haven soon became a nightmare.
Kenny then 34, started showing romantic interest in Renée. By then, he had already broken up with Karen and was seeing another employee. “At that point, I didn’t think there was anything wrong,” she admitted. Although Renée initially likened it to mentorship, she later became “okay with romantic advances“. They got together soon after, and six months later in October 2016, Renée was married to Kenny. Not only did she devote her life to Kenny, she’d also inadvertently devoted her life to his dream, Kenny’s bookstore.
For six years, Renée’s entire existence revolved around the store. She shared she barely got any days off and would rarely get paid. “I would see my family three times a year, sometimes four,” she said. “So my entire life was the store, I had nowhere else to go, so there was no real point negotiating any sort of off day.” Renée eventually distanced herself from her sisters as Kenny often badmouthed them. This left her bereft of any support aside from Kenny. Renée also slept in the store with Kenny, in a little storeroom in the back. Another ex-employee alleged Kenny had once told them this was why he wouldn’t pay Renée’s salary.
Three months into their marriage, Renée realised Kenny was pursuing another employee, a 22-year-old. According to the 22-year-old, Kenny had been planning to “phase Renée out” over the next two years. Although she tried to keep a professional relationship with Kenny, he continued pursuing her and things went wrong fast. Renée confronted Kenny about the matter in January 2017 and Kenny made it sound like the 22-year-old had reciprocated. They eventually divorced and Renée quit BooksActually.
Renée and the 22-year-old weren’t the only two who were affected by Kenny’s actions. Other employees reported Kenny failing to distinguish between a professional and personal relationship with them. He was also finicky about his treatment with them; he would treat them nicely before suddenly giving them the cold shoulder. Additionally, ex-employees shared that Kenny often insinuated he had connections to powerful people which could end their career. Kenny also alluded he was associated with a gang from his polytechnic days. However, Kenny and the current staff have waved it off and said the claims were “overextended”.
Kenny has since responded to the allegations in a Facebook post. The founder claims he had indeed hurt his wife via the affair but did not wish to speak about it. Kenny also admitted his “personal failings” in running BooksActually had caused “immense pain” to former employees. However, he did not address any allegation specifically, and maintained his stance that some allegations were “totally untrue”.
BooksActually revealed that Kenny will be relinquishing sole ownership of the store and its publishing arm, Maths Paper Press to its team. As a result, Kenny will no longer be involved in decision-making processes. The founder stated that the BooksActually team will be working on standard operating procedures for the workplace, including an anti-harassment policy.
We hope Renée and other affected employees will continue to heal from the damage wrought by Kenny. It’s not an easy journey but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Sharing their story may have been painful but it has helped to shed light on the dark wrongdoings happening in the store. Hopefully, BooksActually can recover and prove to be a true haven for booklovers in time.