January 2012

Book Nooks

By Sarah Reeve

Independent bookshops provide readers with plenty of material for winter nights

Chen Weiye
Founder and manager of Garden Books

Chen Weiye opened Garden Books seven years ago in the heart of Shanghai, when he saw a gap in the market for a store that was about more than just books – but also a place for foreigners living in China.

“Seven years ago, there were already plenty of foreigners in Shanghai. Perhaps they could easily find bookstores, but they couldn’t find a book society – a place to meet people, have a coffee, or hold business meetings. I had already been working in publishing for nearly 30 years, so I decided to set up this store, focusing on international customers. Today, about 90% of our customers are foreigners and 10% are local. All the books are in foreign languages however, so the Chinese local customers are ones that speak English, or other international languages. And because international books are more expensive than local ones, the Chinese customers are generally quite well-off.

The reason I think the store has been so successful is that foreigners enjoy the culture. If I had targeted local people, it would have been difficult to survive, as they are now more interested in e-books and reading online. This means that a lot of Chinese bookstores have been closing down, as they have been doing worldwide. All of my staff have to speak English and have some international knowledge - such as history - as part of their background. This is important for our customers, especially as many will call ahead from home first to check if we have a certain book. In the future, if I can find somewhere in Shanghai or Beijing where the rent isn’t so high, I would like to open another store.”

Qian Xiaokun
Co-founder of 2666 Library

When Qian Xiaokun met with his four writer friends in his movie-themed coffee shop in the trendy Jing’an Villas in Shanghai, they decided what the area really needed was a private space where members of the community could peacefully enjoy reading.

“We’ve been open about half a year now, in this very quiet, very cultural location. Most of the founders are from media companies, (translators, writers) with too many books in our homes - so we wanted to share them! While most of the books are for borrowing, there are some signature books that can be bought, and we sell a selection of drinks and snacks too. The private library has been growing very fast; membership is now about 200, including a significant number of foreigners. We like to do parties too; every two weeks we do movie nights, and sometimes we have writers come in to talk about their work. There are some issues we are facing; the licensing for doing business at the Jing’an Villas is currently under question, so we may have to move this year. And rents in Shanghai are now very high, so it’s pretty hard for a library like ours to survive. But we will continue insisting on the concept - we think this is amazing chance for us do something different. In the future, we want to have a bigger space; we want to increase the volume of books so our members can read more and better books all the time.

I’m not too worried about people reading less physical books these days. I believe the traditional reading concept will live on - it is the most beautiful way to read.”

Zhang ZunXiang
Founder of Red Bookstore

After working in the industry across different districts in Shanghai for ten years, Zhang ZunXiang opened his own store in 2007, in the arty Shanghai Sculpture Space area.

“Having been in this industry for ten years, I am quite familiar with the market. We specialize in a specific genre - design books. This is the only thing we do; we don’t sell fiction or anything else, we are focused on art and design, so I have no worries at all.

I chose this location because its visitors usually form the best consumer group for our target of high-level customers. Most of our customers are not students, but tourists from Japan, Korea or other countries. But our largest customer group is University libraries and R&D centers, who generally order foreign design magazines. Our University customers usually spend RMB300,000 or more each year, and there are several hundred universities across China – a large potential market. Repeat customers make up the largest proportion of our sales; we’ve had relationships established with them for years. In the future, we plan to open more shops, but only in Shanghai. We are looking to open stores in Tongji University, Xintiandi and Tianzifang.”

Zhang Hong
Founder of Mo_Box Book

Zhang Hong established Mo-Box, a specialty children’s bookstore and family meeting spot in Beijing in 2008, after buying an abundance of picture books for his young daughter.

“I have always been interested in reading, but I am actually an architect by profession. Once the number of picture books that I had bought for my daughter was too many for my house, I decided to set-up a space where parents could not only buy such books, but also meet other parents while their kids learn and play. A space became available for rent within a five-minute walk from my design studio, and so we opened in May 2008.

Families with young children are our main customers, since we mostly sell children’s books. Since our Wudaokou location is right in between two universities, we also get students and scholars showing interest in our books and magazines. Most of our clients are Chinese, but our foreign friends are growing in number.

Our regular events are an important part of our operations. We hold picture book reading sessions for children every week and we also show films related to the stories the kids read about, such as Tintin. A new project which is really important to me is our special art education courses. While we want to try to develop great artists, we also want to teach the kids how to observe and how to integrate with each other. Rents are getting higher and higher, and online bookstores mean a lot of people don’t visit physical bookstores anymore. But I’m not so worried about the future, I think there are still opportunities for specialty and unique bookstores; people want to meet real people and have real conversations.”