The Man Behind the Books

Anthony Koh Waugh is an unusual Singaporean. He quit a promising corporate career to work full-time as a freelance journalist. That eyebrow-raising move was followed by yet another. At a time when mega bookstores were closing their doors in Singapore, he set up an independent bookshop called Booktique, a pop-up store that does not stay still but moves from choice location to location. It’s not to be confused with media company Starhub’s e-book store of the same name. Koh Waugh’s Booktique (“Where Writers Shop”) had its most recent iteration at The Cathay, a former cinema-turned-shopping mall, just beside The School of the Arts and a stone’s throw from the fine arts district around Waterloo Street. After a successful tenure there, Koh Waugh is taking a rest and looking for the next location for his pop-up. SP took advantage of his break to ask him a few questions about the life of a freelance journalist and independent bookseller.

 

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Anthony setting up Booktique’s first book fair in 2013 at Caffe Pralet
in Tiong Bahru neighborhood. Photo by Prism Visuals.

 

SP: You are obviously a person who takes risks in order to follow his passions. What in your upbringing and education has given you this gumption? Or have they been more of a hindrance to be overcome?

AKW: From childhood till now, my parents have always given me lots of latitude in life. I think their simple-mindedness has taught me to think in an uncomplicated way. That helps when it comes to making big decisions like leaving a stable job to become a full-time freelance writer in 2007 and setting up Booktique last year. I may come across as a daredevil in my pursuits but I never take risks blindly. I don’t think education has given me the courage to dream – certainly not my disparate educational background. I was an engineering, business and communication student at different stages of my life. What really gives me the impetus to go all the way with my passions is my idealism which grows stronger with age.

SP: In an interview with Tan Shee Lah, former managing editor of NTUC Media, you spoke of the excitement of seeing yourself in print for the first time. It was a piece on former TV actor James Lye, published in The Straits Times, Singapore’s main broadsheet. What led you to write about James Lye? Can you explain your fascination with showbiz celebrities?

AKW: My mum and I were fans of James Lye and we used to watch his dramas together. As her liking for Lye grew, so did my dad’s jealously. That sparked me to write about Lye when he decided to quit his showbiz career. My fascination with celebrities was a growing up phase. Now that I write for magazines, I have the opportunities to get up close with them during interviews and sometimes at photo-shoots. Of course, I’m excited when I meet those I like but I am no longer starstruck. My focus is to do a good job.

SP: Besides celebrities, what are some topics that you find yourself returning to over and over again? As a freelancer, you have to write what the media market demands. What proportion of your writing would you say is done for others, and what proportion for yourself?

AKW: After I landed my first celebrity story, I keep getting more such assignments. Honestly, I didn’t set out to be an entertainment writer but over time entertainment writing evolved to become my area of specialisation. That was when I realised that I wasn’t writing about topics close to my heart. Though the opportunity came two years ago (thanks to NUS Society and Singapore Business Review), now I’m still writing stories for survival’s sake than personal fulfilment most of the time.

SP: Who are your models in journalistic writing? What magazines do you see as the gold standard?

AKW: I don’t have any journalists whom I look up to. As far as writers are concerned, I prefer those who write in short sentences and with rhythm. It is hard to answer your second question but I do think highly of The New Yorker, Time, The Economist, Monocle, Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ and Esquire.

SP: In a commentary piece in Singapore Business Review, you argued that independent bookstores are viable so long as they cater to true book lovers such as writers and bibliophiles. How do you make sure that Booktique, your pop-up store, attract these vital customers?

AKW: All independent booksellers will curate their product selection based on the profile of their target customers. I think curation is more than just having a good grasp of marketing principles; it is also an art that requires a philosophical reflection. To put it simply, someone who walks into Booktique and leaves the shop without touching a single book does not belong to our customer segment. Our selection will not appeal to the general readers but the literary crowd will be tempted by the aesthetic and content of our books.

SP: How would you judge the success of Booktique thus far? What are your plans for Booktique in the short and long run?

AKW: From a business aspect, the turnover rate of our inventory is an indication. But Booktique is not run with a businesslike mindset. I won’t deny that Booktique is a business operation and hence subject to business pressures. I just don’t see how books can be treated like commercial products – especially art-related books. Humanity depends on such books. I’m a romantically idealistic bookseller. The more soulful customers we have, the more successful we will feel. Until we can afford a permanent space, we will continue to set up pop-up bookshops and book fairs.

SP: As a writer and bookstore owner, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

AKW: You don’t have to give up your job to write; you just have to start writing. But if you have to do it full-time, it can be possible. At 35, I quit to become a full-time freelance writer. At 40, I set up Booktique. I had faced difficulties then and I’m still facing them now. I learn to overcome them – bit by bit, one by one. If you are not from the millennial generation, the hardest thing to conquer is feeling too old and too late to make changes to your life. Whatever age group you belong to, make sure you have considered your finances before switching career. You won’t enjoy writing when you are worrying about bills.

 

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The celebration of Booktique’ first pop-up bookshop at The Cathay in May 2014
with Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng. Photo by NIN9 Photography.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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