Read­ing: Be­tween the lines you find a life­style

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY -

Nazis burn­ing books in Hitler’s Ger­many, by Volker Wei­der­mann.

The shop’s mul­ti­pur­pose func­tion is al­luded to in the name Fang Suo Com­mune. The idea is of a third space, an al­ter­na­tive to home and the work­place, a haven that is dif­fer­ent to a pub­lic li­brary or a shop­ping mall where people can read, drink, date, hang out with friends, at­tend a lec­ture or an ex­hi­bi­tion, buy in­ter­est­ing things, or just wan­der about the place.

In short, it is a life­style, Fang Suo Com­mune being just one of the an­swers to why people still need bookstores and what kinds of bookstores they need in an age when buy­ing books on­line is more con­ve­nient and cheaper.

In early Septem­ber book­store own­ers from 10 coun­tries and re­gions gath­ered in Fang Suo Com­mune to dis­cuss how to run a book­store. They were from Li­brairie Avant-Garde, of Nan­jing; Tales on Moon Lane Chil­dren’s Book­shop, Lon­don; Livraria Cul­tura, Sao Paolo, Brazil; La Fel­trinelli, Mi­lan; Actes Sud, Ar­les, France; Do You Read Me?!, Berlin; The Last Book­store, Los Angeles; JXJ Books, Taipei; Avid Reader, Brisbane, Australia; and B & B, Tokyo.

For them, build­ing beau­ti­ful and cre­ative bookstores is a strat­egy aimed at help­ing them sur­vive and a so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity that will bring changes in neigh­bor­hoods and cities, be­cause books are not merely goods, they say, and gen­er­ally there is lit­tle or no money to be made in sell­ing them, es­pe­cially given the in­flu­ence of e-com­merce.

A pre­sen­ta­tion and ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion given by the owner of B&B, Shin­taro Uch­inuma, an au­di­ence laugh­ing, and that re­ac­tion ex­tended to his ex­pla­na­tion of his shop’s name, which he said stands for Book and Beer. For 500 yen (30 yuan; $4,50) you get a cup of beer, and the right to read any book in the 100 sq m shop.

The aim is to tap into a large tar­get mar­ket, given the propen­sity of many Ja­panese for a beer af­ter work and the fact that the shop is close to a rail­way station. In the store, Uch­inuma and its co-founder, Koichiro Shima, also sell book­shelves and fur­ni­ture, in­clud­ing ta­bles and chairs. In fact any piece of fur­ni­ture you see in the shop is for sale.

An­other way of in­creas­ing tak­ings is to in­vite writ­ers to give lec­tures and charge for ad­mis­sion.

In ad­di­tion, the shop’s own­ers sell food and English train­ing, make tele­vi­sion pro­grams about books and pub­lish their own books.

“But we don’t want to run a bar, a fur­ni­ture store or a space specif­i­cally for host­ing events,” Uch­inuma says. “The shop is very small. To sell the best books we are try­ing to sur­vive in other ways so we can help people find in­ter­est­ing books. They come to our store to read and drink beer.”

Qian Xiao­hua, founder of Li­brairie Avant-Garde in Nan­jing, which also de­serves to be called one of the most beau­ti­ful bookstores in the world, says it is very important for a book to keep the spirit of a time.

“A book­store is as equally important as clean air, suf­fi­cient sun­shine and green plants for a city. The ac­cu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge drives the progress of hu­man be­ings, and books are our best food.

“So we, as book­store pro­pri­etors, should have the aware­ness and bear the so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity to cre­ate good bookstores and sell the best books.”

Qian now has 13 bookstores in Nan­jing and other cities. While the Nan­jing store bears the name Li­brairie Avant-Garde, the other 12 have their own names, and Qian says a 14th store will open in Nan­jing this year.

Cre­ativ­ity is one important fac­tor in Qian’s suc­cess. He never repli­cates what he is doing, all the other 12 shops hav­ing their own dis­tinct styles, not just ar­chi­tec­turally, but also in book cat­e­gories, he says.

“A good book­store is the fruit of all book lovers’ imag­i­na­tion.”

Some of the bookstores are de­voted to po­etry, which Qian says is his fa­vorite lit­er­ary genre.

In fact in Li­brairie Avant-Garde in Nan­jing, which opened 21 years ago, the best spot in the shop is re­served for po­etry. Qian has strict dic­tates on what he will sell, re­served to hu­man­i­ties such as arts and lit­er­a­ture, and in the shop you will find no best­sellers, chil­dren’s books or text­books.

“Each book on our shelves rep­re­sents the his­tory of writ­ers’ souls from a cer­tain coun­try, so that you can see the coun­try’s soul from that book,” he says.

He pre­dicts that main­stream bookstores will even­tu­ally be a com­bi­na­tion of cafe and book­store, a model sim­i­lar to that of Star­bucks. How­ever, he says, there will be a lot of best­sellers in these bookstores, which “will be detri­men­tal to the na­tion’s soul being nour­ished”.

Li­brairie Avant-Garde is lo­cated in what was a 4,000 sq m un­der­ground park­ing lot and has couch seat­ing for 300 people. To some ex­tent it has be­come a kind of pub­lic place, some cus­tomers pop­ping in for just a few min­utes, per­haps to buy a book, and oth­ers who can spend the whole day there read­ing.

Katherine Or­phan, man­ager of The Last Book­store in Los Angeles, says it also opens its doors to var­i­ous kinds of read­ers, in­clud­ing the home­less and the down and out.

Book­shops should not re­ject these people, she says, and Last Book­store al­lows them to buy books at $1 apiece. She hopes that for those who are home­less or who have lit­tle money, the shop can be a haven.

The Last Book­store started as a sec­ond-hand book­store in 2009, was on ar­chi­tec­turaldigest.com’s list of world’s most beau­ti­ful bookstores last year, and ev­ery year at­tracts thou­sands of visi­tors from around the world.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Jun­hui, part of the Li­brairie Avant-Garde chain, fea­tures tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­te­rior de­signs.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A book­store in­te­rior de­signer from Hong Kong ad­dresses the book­store fo­rum in Chengdu, Sichuan prov­ince.

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