Revitalising Tianshuiyuan Book Market
Tianshuiyuan Book Market, a time-honoured brand with 25 years of expertise in the book wholesale industry, has had its share of glory and hardship. It is experiencing a longawaited rebirth.
Beijing Joy Tianshuiyuan Book and Culture Harbour is located in Building No. 16, Tianshuiyuan Beili, Chaoyang District. It is a 13,000-squaremetre (sq.m) book plaza that integrates wholesale and retail and is a timehonoured brand with 25 years of expertise in the book wholesale industry. It has had its share of glory and hardship. It is now experiencing a long-awaited rebirth.
Glories of the Golden Age
In 1993, there was a hustling and bustling wholesale book market at the terminus of Beijing Bus No. 9, near Jintai Road.
That era was the golden age of the wholesale book industry. Every day, FAW Jiefang Trucks loaded with books would stream into the market one after another. In less than half a day, the books would be snapped up. According to old hands, booksellers in the market did not have to worry about sales in those days
because the market itself was the best advertisement. As long as there were books available, there would naturally be customers. That market is the predecessor of Tianshuiyuan, whose rise indicated the transition of book wholesale from street stalls to established outlets.
Initially, Tianshuiyuan Book Wholesale Market was run on a section of newly-built and temporarily-idle road for the residential community in the area. Businesspeople set up stores in movable structures. The poor overall environment of the market did not interfere with its rapid success in securing its footing in the competitive book industry. It became a well-known brand in the wholesale book market in Beijing and even became a vane indicating trends in the national book industry. Back then, about 400 of the nearly 600 publishing houses in China were in North China, with Beijing at the centre. A large proportion of those 400 publishing houses were headquartered in Tianshuiyuan. The social environment and the geographical location contributed to the golden age of the wholesale book market and the overall industry. The multitude of book wholesalers in the lucrative business is a precious memory from that era.
The market soared over the next four years. In 1997, Building No. 16 was erected at Tianshuiyuan Beili. The roadside wholesale book market relocated to the building. From then on, Building No. 16 became synonymous with the wholesale book market, which soon simply became known as Tianshuiyuan. Moving into the new facility marked a new stage in the development of the market. There were some practical problems, however. There were not enough booths to meet the needs of the booksellers. Small booksellers were quickly eliminated in the face of hundreds of competitors because of their limited presence. The remaining publishers and booksellers continued to scramble for the limited spaces. In the end, eligibility screening and bidding were introduced to manage the limited space. Two hundred twenty-one publishers and booksellers ended up with booths and officially established themselves here, including many representative publishers from around China.
The market now had a new site, a new atmosphere and a new look. The permanent facilities at Tianshuiyuan helped usher in a new era. The basement was used as a warehouse for booksellers and publishers. The three main floors were used for sales. A wide range of bestsellers and high-end titles were available. Political, economic, scientific, historical, literary, educational, and children's books were available, among others. The new environment was eye-catching. Aside from central air-conditioning, automated service elevators, electronic touch screens, computer retrieval and other modern facilities, the market also provided postal, consignment and savings services for publishers, booksellers and customers. Meanwhile, joint supervision, regulation and law enforcement were conducted by the public security agency, the industrial and commercial bureau, cultural agencies, the industry office and reviewing agencies, significantly rectifying the book market and providing convenience for merchants and readers.
Tianshuiyuan continued growing and became a well-known enterprise in wholesale book and magazine sales in Beijing and even nationwide. In 2005, in order to meet the needs of the development of the market economy, reorganisation of this industry occurred. This project was developed and operated by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication, Chaoyang District Government and Chaoyang District Real Estate Development Corporation, according to the Several Requirements for Regulating the Tangible Market directive issued by the Beijing Municipal Administration of Industry and Commerce for “separation of government from enterprises.” From then on, the wholesale book market became exclusively run by enterprises. On March 3, 2006, a plaque with “Beijing Book Wholesale Trading Market Co., Ltd.” inscribed on it was hung on Tianshuiyuan's Beishui Building No. 16.
The wholesale book market has left many people with fond memories over the last twenty-five years. General Manager Si Jiandong has gone through ups and downs with the market and experienced its glorious past. Looking back, he could not hide traces of regret amid pride. He stated: “In the past, booksellers' daily sales could reach hundreds of thousands or even one million. Now it may sound like a fairytale, but it was common back then. The prosperity of the wholesale book market was incomparable.”
The Urgency of the Silver Age
The golden age of Tianshuiyuan lasted for about a decade, and then it began to decline. Various factors were involved, including social politics, the economy and culture. For example, the promulgation and implementation of the Regulations on the Administration of Publications Market in 2003 resulted in a large inflow of private capital in the wholesale book industry. The number of book wholesalers in Beijing soared, shattering the monopoly of
Tianshuiyuan. At the same time, modern media became increasingly abundant and diverse, changing the reading habits of readers and their book-buying habits. Secondly, with the continuous expansion of online bookstores, brick-and-mortar book brokers lost their advantages. Finally, a lack of publishing creativity led to homogeneity, slow sales and overstock, directly contributing to the rapid disintegration of Tianshuiyuan as the second channel market for the wholesale book industry. The once bustling scene was never seen again, and the famous wholesale market became quiet.
The impact from these various forces almost killed the name of the book wholesale market. It was a gradual process, not discernible except in hindsight, like the failure of frogs to jump out of gradually heated water. Tianshuiyuan's golden age was also the peak of the national wholesale book industry. Si stated, “The development bottleneck concerned not just Tianshuiyuan but the entire book wholesale industry across China.”
The government decided to respond to the situation and implemented tax subsidies to save the market. However, these measures seemed to be insufficient to counter trends in the industry. In the past, stalls in Tianshuiyuan were hard to come by, but in the slack season of 2012, vacant stalls began to appear. It was the first time Si was keenly aware of the changes that were occurring. He began to visit wholesale book markets around the country and conduct field inspections. He found that they faced the same downturn, and most of them were in worse shape than Tianshuiyuan. Si recalled: “The entire wholesale book industry was at a low point. Many wholesale markets were changed beyond recognition and even ceased to exist except in name. Their operating revenues were invariably bad.”
After this inspection tour, Si had some ideas. For example, he lowered the rent for the publishers and booksellers, helped them coordinate the warehouse better, assist with training their staff and sometimes even aided them with promotional activities. Si admitted that those efforts amounted to little though. “At that time, we did not have a good business sense, and our efforts were not comprehensive. So, little effect was achieved in saving the market.”
The impossible overall trends ended the golden age of Tianshuiyuan and relegated it to its silver age. The loss of market share, the withdrawal of publishers and merchants, and the sharp decline in customers made it difficult for Tianshuiyuan to restore its past glories.
The current book market features a set pattern of State-owned bookstores, online bookstores and independent bookstores. In the booming social revolution, book intermediaries like Tianshuiyuan were weakened. They faced a cheerless market and steadily decreasing turnovers. People involved with the market were keenly aware of its powerlessness, as well as the publishers and booksellers. Something had to change in order to survive the brutal competition. Si noted that he wanted Tianshuiyuan to forge ahead with the booksellers and that
he could not just watch it collapse after two decades of development.
Trials and Travails
The two-decade old Tianshuiyuan was no longer geared to the pace of modernisation. Its dense shops, old environment and ageing equipment seemed to be out of place in the rapidly developing city. In addition, the bustling crowds and heavy traffic in the area made traffic congestion a daily occurrence. It became a target of criticism.
The rapidly changing and developing social environment and constantly updating city made a transformation of Tianshuiyuan inevitable. In 2015, the coordinated development of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei became a national strategy, and the urban functional orientation of Beijing was re-defined. Some industries irrelevant to its core functions as a city would be relocated, including wholesale markets. In accordance with the planning and requirements of the development strategy, Chaoyang District comprehensively rectified wholesale markets within its jurisdictions. Some wholesale markets were upgraded, others transformed and still others closed, in a bid to improve their quality and control their number. Tianshuiyuan, as a landmark wholesale book market in the district, ushered in a stage of upgrade and transformation. In response to the government's call, it comprehensively improved its environment and implemented better fire safety measures. It also promised to increase the variety and quality of books.
Still exploring ways to break free from the dilemma of the silver age, Tianshuiyuan was plunged into a new wave of development. Although there was some confusion at first, the market boldly took one difficult step after another.
In 2016, the Tianshuiyuan Wholesale Book Market underwent a major overhaul. Si considered this to be a travail. After more than 20 years of development, a thorough renewal was anything but an easy task in practice. Tianshuiyuan had to withstand the test of multiple problems. For example, a method had to be chosen to dismiss certain publishers and booksellers. That was especially hard for Si. He recalled: “Some booksellers had been in the business for ten or even twenty years and their operators had become middle-aged or even old. If they suddenly had to move out and do something else, what could they do?” Beijing was also undergoing a comprehensive safety inspection. Tianshuiyuan's basement warehouse would inevitably next to be rectified. Specifically, it was going to be cleared out or considered illegal. As a result,
Book displays at the Tianshuiyuan Book Market after its renovation
Tianshuiyuan Book Market provides dedicated reading areas for children.