In a bind, Chinese bookstores try to hold out
Like bookstores everywhere, Chinese bookstores in the US are selling more than books to survive in the digital revolution. Call it specialization, diversification or evolving, Hezi Jiang in New York, May Zhou in Houston and Lia Zhu in San Francisco repor
and somewhat reluctant to share information about her business.
Compared to the Greatwall, the Oriental appears to cling to the past — books, magazines, music and video CDs. There are even a few shelves of video tapes with slightly faded covers. “They are for sale, not for renting,” said Wong.
While the Greatwall carries books from the Chinese mainland, the Oriental has books and magazines from Hong Kong and Taiwan only. “We also carry books by Chinese mainland authors if the books were published in Hong Kong or Taiwan,” said Wong.
Another distinctive feature of the Oriental is the number of magazines it carries. “We sell more than 50 kinds of magazines from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some magazines are for young people and we do have younger customers too,” said Wong. One can spot stacks of plastic wrapped magazines with adult content, which cannot be found at the Greatwall.
While the Oriental may not look very prosperous, it survives in today’s market of Nooks and Kindles and Amazon Books. “We have a loyal base of long-time customers who regularly come over to look for books,” said Wong.
In San Francisco
The customers are in their 50s or 60s. They took a copy of Chinese newspapers, placed two quarters on the counter and left. Lucy Ho didn’t even bother to look up from her iPad.
In her Evergreen Books and Stationery store in a shopping mall in the Bay Area, the shelves are crammed with various Chinese books and magazines, divided into categories: students’ textbooks and reference books, economics and business, fiction, classic literature and comic books.
At the store’s entrance there are dozens of the latest editions of magazines published in Taiwan and Hong Kong, most of them on politics, military or economics. “That’s for men, and this is for young ladies,” said Ho, pointing to stacks of fashion and entertainment magazines in front of the counter where she sat.
Next to the newsstand was a shelf of DVDs of popular Chinese dramas. “That’s for elderly ladies,” she said. “Nowadays, young people can always find a way to watch free programs on the Internet.”
“My customers are those aged between 40 and 70, and real book lovers,” she said. “I understand young people have a lot of pressure from life, especially in the Bay Area, where everything is so expensive. Who has time to settle down and read?”
Chinese bookstores in the Bay Area also sell a variety of things to survive such as feng shui calendars, calling cards, knickknacks, even citizenship test questions and hula hoops. But for some it is still not enough. Alpine Books, which had been on a boutique street in Mountain View for dozens of years, recently closed.
“I heard a sushi restaurant will be open at the location,” said Janto Yang, who works at a Chinese bakery opposite the shuttered bookstore. “The rent is more than $5,000 a month. She (the book store owner) said she couldn’t afford it.”
Ho said one reason Chinese book stores are not doing well is the increasing cost of getting books from China.
“The shipping cost is $7 per pound from the Chinese mainland and $4-$5 per pound from Taiwan,” Ho said. “And the books are not returnable, so we must have an accurate control of the stock.”
She refuses to sell stuff other than books, newspapers and a small amount of stationery and calendars. “I want my customers to feel they are in a book store,” she said.
But worried that her book store may not last long, Ho hoped some cultural agency of China could take it over as a window to promote Chinese culture. “That might be a way to preserve it,” she said.
Contact the writers at hezijiang@ chinadailyusa.com, mayzhou@ chinadailyusa.com, liazhu@ chinadailyusa.com
A woman looks at the T-shirts, back-scratcher and stationary on sale outside the Xinhua Bookstore in Flushing, Queens. Signs promote the bookstore’s shipping service, framing service and health and nutrition related products.