BUT MORE THAN BOOKS
Liu Xiaona and Her “Isles Bookstore”
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.
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.