BUT MORE THAN BOOKS

Liu Xiaona and Her “Isles Book­store”

That's China - - The Innovators - Text by/ Li Jing

The name of the book­store makes one nd­feel tempted to con­nect the place with Gabrielle Zevin's novel, The Sto­ried Life of A.J. Fikry, about a mid­dle-aged man who owns a fail­ing in­de­pen­dent book­store on Alice Is­land off the coast of Mas­sachusetts. When his rare col­lec­tion of Poe po­ems is stolen, the 39-year-old wid­ower begins iso­lat­ing him­self from his friends, fam­ily and as­so­ciates be­fore re­ceiv­ing a mys­te­ri­ous pack­age that com­pels him to re­make his life. The grace­ful Liu Xiaona and the cranky un­likely ro­man­tic hero have one thing in com­mon: both strug­gled with a fail­ing book­store and found re­demp­tion in the process.

We ar­rived at a cross­ing off Ren­min Road in down­town Ding­hai when the sun was at its fiercest. Bands of sun­light fil­tered through the fo­liage of a tree, pro­duc­ing a pleas­ant oa­sis of shade, un­der which com­fort­ably sits the city’s ‘read­ing salon’, run by Liu Xiaona.

At around 11am on a Satur­day morn­ing most of the seats were oc­cu­pied by par­ents and chil­dren, hus­bands and wives, stu­dents and friends hud­dled over their book of choice, read­ing in­tently by them­selves or shar­ing their thoughts in hushed voices. The cozy store’s walls are lined with an eclec­tic mix of sto­ries, pre­sent­ing the op­por­tu­nity to be whisked away to a far-away fairy­tale land or ed­u­cated on a fas­ci­nat­ing topic. Sur­rounded by the fra­grance of tea and cof­fee, the wel­com­ing un­os­ten­ta­tious at­mos­phere lures both the young and old to loose them­selves in a book.

Although the place was bustling with peo­ple, it acts as a serene hide­away for vis­i­tors. For Xiaona, it was one of her many busy worker-bee days. Her all know­ing eyes at­tend to every cus­tomer’s needs and wishes, as she silently buzzes around the place mak­ing sure ev­ery­thing is per­fect.

“I’ll join you in a minute,” Liu Xiaona greeted us with a warm smile from be­hind the café counter.

‘Book­store on the Is­land’

Tied to the theme of "A Li­brary on the Is­lands", the LOFT-style book­store is decked out for grownups as well as chil­dren. Neatly stacked books are or­gan­ised into a range of cat­e­gories, with the café space housed in a cor­ner near the door to al­low for leisurely in-store brows­ing and a sta­tionery zone in an­oth­ernd cor­ner of­fer­ing a se­lec­tion of writ­ing im­ple­ments. The broad win­dows let in the nat­u­ral light, which re­flects upon the white walls, al­low­ing the small place to feel spa­cious enough for all who walk through the front door. The sim­plis­tic lay­out of the store draws one’s eyes to­wards the spines of the books, beck­on­ing the vis­i­tor to care­fully choose the

ti­tle they de­sire.

For Xiaona, the book­store she took over from her elder sis­ter, who was a bit of a lit­er­ary snob, is her most prized pos­ses­sion. The book­store has also been the source of her joys and pains over the past 30 years, and a record of the woman’s stun­ning per­se­ver­ance, ded­i­ca­tion, ide­al­ism and in­cur­able per­fec­tion­ism against un­ex­pected turns and com­pli­ca­tions.

It is one thing to fan­ta­size about own­ing a book­store that has a jum­ble of rooms en­cour­ag­ing browsers to meander all af­ter­noon, ide­ally lo­cated in a quaint town. It is an­other thing to put these ro­man­tic thoughts into ac­tion. Liu Xiaona’s is the right per­son to tell you the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two.

About 10 years ago, de­pressed for a pro­longed pe­riod fol­low­ing the out­break of elec­tronic books and on­line book­stores, Liu Xiaona was di­rec­tion­less and help­less, se­ri­ously think­ing about quit­ting.

“It was a chat with a monk friend who brought me out of the haze,” she re­called, lost in thoughts. “I asked him what’d hap­pen if I quit, and what he said shocked me. You’ll die in dis­ap­point­ment if you quit like that, he told me.”

“It felt like ev­ery­thing was ex­plained to me, and all the loose ends were neatly tied up with a bow,” Xiaona re­called with her eyes shin­ing in earnest­ness.

The re­demp­tion changed her life. She quickly fig­ured out that it was her des­tiny to keep the book­store alive and make it thrive. Born into a poor fam­ily in Li­uheng

Is­land, Zhoushan, Liu Xiaona’s big­gest re­gret in life is not hav­ing a chance to en­joy read­ing in her younger years, and the book­store brought im­mense so­lace to make up for her un­ful­filled dream.

‘Crafts­man­ship’

Her sis­ter book­store lo­cated only about 10 me­ters across the street, has a more old-fash­ioned am­bi­ence. A con­glom­er­ate of spe­cial­ized cat­e­gories is shelved to­gether. The smaller win­dows, next to thick wooden read­ing ta­bles pro­vide ro­man­tic mood light­ing. With scat­tered pot plants and ce­ramic tea sets, the place feels homely. Whether it is a sunny or stormy day, the nos­tal­gic am­bi­ence makes it a nice place to curl up with a book to read for hours on end. Books from down­stairs can be brought up to the de­cid­edly serene second floor for leisurely in­spec­tion.

When it comes to se­lect­ing ti­tles for the shelves, Xiaona con­fesses that she is by no means an ex­ten­sively well-read per­son and all she can rely on is her “gut feel­ings”. Only those ti­tles that sat­isfy her taste are al­lowed in.

“I al­ways keep an eye on ev­ery­one who walks in here and what they are look­ing for. I re­ceive clues about what’s hot and what’s not by lis­ten­ing and talk­ing to them, and I try my best to make sure they walk out feel­ing sat­is­fied.”

“For me, run­ning this lit­tle place is not just to sell books. I want it to be a place for com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the read­ers and I, and among strangers who walk out of the door as like-minded friends. It is all about crafts­man­sh­nip, ldike a farmer tend­ing his crops day in and day out.” To make ‘crafts­man­ship’ tan­gi­ble for each of her cus­tomers, the worka­holic spends as much time as pos­si­ble work­ing with the staff to make sure all the read­ing ma­te­ri­als can be en­joyed com­fort­ably even be­fore pur­chas­ing and every cup of latte is made with care.

“I am here al­most every day and I en­joy keep­ing an eye on every small de­tail and pro­vide de­light­ful ser­vices for par­ents and chil­dren alike,” Liu told us, while ob­serv­ing the go­ings on at the café out of the cor­ner of her eye. “I am a very strict per­son when it comes to serv­ing the cus­tomers, and all the staff should al­ways be ready to rec­om­mend the pen that pro­vides the joy of writ­ing.” She ob­vi­ously is strict, but her strict­ness comes with a dose of com­pas­sion.

“I will never for­get the day when one of the fre­quenters walked in af­ter ‘dis­ap­pear­ing’ for al­most a year and asked if I could rec­om­mend some­thing fit­ting for her to read. “I was di­ag­nosed with cancer”, she told me,” Xiaona re­called. “The woman’s ema­ci­at­ing face weighed on me for a long time, mak­ing me think about what the book­store can do be­yond sell­ing books.”

For book lovers in Ding­hai, the ‘Book­store on the Is­land’ has be­come a cul­tural ren­dezvous. Just like Zevin's book, Liu’s two book­stores are a love let­ter to the joys of read­ing, of­fer­ing a re­as­sur­ing ther­apy for peo­ple to com­bat ur­ban suf­fer­ings. Her ‘Book­store on the Is­land’ sells more than books: it spreads the mes­sage that books and read­ing can bind lives as surely as any shared love and adds a cul­tural qual­ity to the weath­er­beaten façade of Ding­hai, where “no man is an is­land; Every book is a world.”

For book lovers in Ding­hai, the ‘Book­store on the Is­land’ has be­come a cul­tural ren­dezvous. Just like Zevin's book, Liu’s two book­stores are a love let­ter to the joys of read­ing, of­fer­ing a re­as­sur­ing

ther­apy for peo­ple to com­bat ur­ban suf­fer­ings.

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