The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY SCOTT RAINEN

In the small tourist town of Yang­shuo, Guangxi, a crowd me­an­dered into a ce­ment struc­ture more akin to a tool shed than a house. They were dressed com­fort­ably: some with neck­laces and bracelets, some with tat­toos, but all came with a book. This was the open­ing party for the south­ern town’s first in­de­pen­dent book­store, One Book Shop.

In­side there was enough room, ap­pro­pri­ately, for one book­shelf, a counter with a cof­fee maker, a minifridge, and a ta­ble in the mid­dle of the shop. This was cov­ered with an ar­ray of cakes and treats pro­vided by the owner, Jeff Peng. The books brought by the at­ten­dees were do­na­tions; they were placed on the book­shelf for fu­ture guests to en­joy.

The book­shelf needed some fill­ing out, and Peng’s mer­chan­dis­ing scheme would not do the job alone. As he ex­plained: “I sell one type of tea, one type of cof­fee, and one type of book. It’s sim­ple.” In this way, the book­store is fun­da­men­tally ide­al­is­tic. It was a re­al­iza­tion of Peng’s dream, and as the open­ing party wore on, he waxed po­etic about this vi­sion: “Yang­shuo is a cul­tural desert,” Peng said. “My book­store will serve as an oa­sis.” The crowd protested back: “What are you say­ing? We’re full of cul­ture!”

Even in the age of on­line book sales, book­stores re­main an im­por­tant as­pect of China’s lit­er­ary cul­ture. How­ever, they are tak­ing on a new look. In re­sponse to an in­abil­ity to com­pete with on­line sales, the idea of creat­ing a space at­trac­tive to read­ers is in­creas­ingly im­por­tant. Cof­fee shops are be­com­ing syn­ony­mous with book­stores; var­i­ous events, from book clubs to guest lec­tures, are be­com­ing as vi­tal as the books them­selves. Chain book­stores are also be­gin­ning to pro­vide th­ese ser­vices, but while be­he­moths like Page One or Yan­jiyou may win for their size, they re­main mere im­i­ta­tions of the core of this move­ment: the in­de­pen­dent book­store.

Open­ing a book­store in China is not an easy task, es­pe­cially given the pop­u­lar­ity of on­line re­tail and ris­ing rent prices. China’s pop­u­lar com­mu­nity-based ques­tion-an­dan­swer web­site, Zhihu, con­tains a thread bear­ing the ques­tion, “How to open your own in­de­pen­dent book­store?” This thread’s top-rated post pro­vides a va­ri­ety of tips on ev­ery­thing from how to bol­ster the store’s rep­u­ta­tion—to wit, by invit­ing au­thors, hold­ing events, and buy­ing a

pro­jec­tor—to minute de­tails such as an ap­pro­pri­ate size for such an op­er­a­tion (50 to 60 square me­ters, ap­par­ently).

While the top post ac­knowl­edges the dif­fi­culty of the un­der­tak­ing, it is op­ti­mistic com­pared to others. An­other user named Cai Huix­ian is far more bluntly pes­simistic: “Don’t open an in­de­pen­dent book­store; it is not as easy as you may think or feel. It re­quires too much knowl­edge, too much ef­fort, and too much money.” On the other hand, Wang Tong, the man­ager of Yi­jia Book­store, an in­de­pen­dent book­store in the south­west­ern pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Kun­ming, has a more mod­er­ate view: “I don’t think that any trade is easy, es­pe­cially if you want to do it well.”

Yi­jia Book­store was orig­i­nally founded by two work­ers who took a lik­ing to the in­de­pen­dent book­store cul­ture in China. So, af­ter ac­quir­ing a 100-square-me­ter space on the ground level of an apart­ment com­plex near the city’s largest univer­sity, they opened up a shop. Even­tu­ally, Wang, then a barista, was brought on board as man­ager. Over a year later, he’s still there.

An in­de­pen­dent book­store “is kind of like your home,” Wang ex­plained. “The peo­ple who live in it de­ter­mine what kind of en­vi­ron­ment it will have.” And for Yi­jia, those in­clude stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­als look­ing for a place to re­lax, have a cup of cof­fee, and read.

The store has a mod­est book se­lec­tion and is ul­ti­mately forced to sell cof­fee to stay in busi­ness. Still, this is not just a cup of cof­fee, for it im­plic­itly comes with an ex­pe­ri­ence: the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss books you’ve read, would like to read, or haven’t heard of yet. In Wang’s opin­ion, this is the sin­gle most im­por­tant element of in­de­pen­dent book­stores, one that the chain im­i­ta­tions have no abil­ity to em­u­late: “peo­ple don’t just come to our store to find a book; they come here to find me, to get a rec­om­men­da­tion, and drink cof­fee to­gether.”

Wang’s opin­ion is no anom­aly. In­de­pen­dent book­stores in China use var­i­ous schemes, such as a book club hosted by Peng or slick Wechat ar­ti­cles from Cheng­dubased Ros­a­books, to in­crease their pop­u­lar­ity. But ul­ti­mately, a charis­matic, so­cia­ble man­ager seems to be the most com­mon thread in the tapestry of Chi­nese in­de­pen­dent book­stores.

This phe­nom­e­non is per­haps nowhere more clear than Kun­ming’s Wheat­field Book­store, where an in­ter­view was con­tin­u­ally in­ter­rupted by cus­tomers ea­gerly try­ing to get the lat­est rec­om­men­da­tion from owner Ma Li as he ex­plained his un­der­stand­ing of an in­de­pen­dent book­store: “First, the owner needs to per­son­ally en­joy read­ing; sec­ond, they need to in­di­vid­u­ally stock the store’s books, pick­ing a se­lec­tion that fits their per­sonal taste; third, they need to re­flect over the con­tent—im­bue it with their own spirit.”

Wheat­field Book­store and Zhiyuan Book­store—also of Kun­ming, owned by the cap­ti­vat­ing Li Xun­tao—pro­vide two in­ter­est­ing snap­shots of the cul­ture that makes up in­de­pen­dent book­stores in China. Both oc­cupy small spa­ces jammed with books, both own­ers were in­spired by other in­de­pen­dent book­stores in China, and both are sup­ported by loyal clien­tele, but their own­ers took dif­fer­ent paths to the pro­fes­sion. Ma first worked in lo­gis­tics be­fore he de­cided to throw cau­tion to the wind and fol­low his dream; Li never made it past el­e­men­tary school, but worked as a blue-col­lar la­borer un­til his mid-20s when the no­tion of en­trepreneur­ship took hold of him. Then, with the en­cour­age­ment of his wife and fam­ily, he de­cided to open his dream store: “when I was in el­e­men­tary school I re­al­ized I liked read­ing; at that time I would read in the li­brary. So I thought, why not open my own?”

Th­ese stores gen­er­ally seem grounded in an idyl­lic in­ter­pre­ta­tion of life among books and peo­ple who ap­pre­ci­ate them—con­sist­ing of scin­til­lat­ing dis­cus­sions with clien­tele, and lazy hours spent read­ing when busi­ness is slow. This dream was em­bod­ied most by Peng, per­haps a sign of young am­bi­tion.

Four months af­ter the open­ing party, the fu­ture of One Book Shop was not set in stone: “Maybe I’ll try mov­ing it to a big­ger city,” Peng said. “Yang­shuo is a tourist place, so there are not many peo­ple with sim­i­lar in­ter­ests around here.” As for his monthly book ex­change, he had re­duced the num­ber of copies stocked from around 40 to 20 or less, “it’s not about money, but still so few of them have sold—it’s not ideal.” Such were the fruits of his ini­tial foray at con­struct­ing an oa­sis. But asked if he would con­tinue his ide­al­is­tic ap­proach to book­stores in the fu­ture, he was res­o­lute: “ab­so­lutely.”

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