Reading: Between the lines you find a lifestyle
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.
Junhui, part of the Librairie Avant-Garde chain, features traditional Chinese interior designs.
A bookstore interior designer from Hong Kong addresses the bookstore forum in Chengdu, Sichuan province.