Xiaofeng Book­store opens a new chap­ter

Shanghai Daily - - FRONT PAGE - Shi Jia

Ev­ery­thing seems soft here: the color of the table­cloth, the light, the Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions on the win­dow, and the mu­sic com­ing out of a tiny retro-style ra­dio, which is a stark con­trast with ev­ery­thing else out­side. It is a book­store in­side a hospi­tal build­ing.

This is Xiaofeng Book­store’s 15th lo­ca­tion in Hangzhou. Since its es­tab­lish­ment in 1996, it has be­come a cul­tural land­mark linked to peo­ple’s never-end­ing as­pi­ra­tion for knowl­edge, art and intellectual plea­sure.

In 1993, Zhu Yu­fang, Xiaofeng’s founder, was work­ing at Hangzhou San­lian Book­store near West Lake. San­lian is known for its books on art and phi­los­o­phy.

“At that time books were kept be­hind glass, where the shop as­sis­tant stood in­side and the cus­tomers browsed from the out­side. There were no open shelves,” said Zhu.

If you wanted to read a cer­tain book, you would have to ask the as­sis­tant to fetch it ei­ther from the glass cases or from the book­shelves be­hind. But ex­pe­ri­enced read­ers knew how to get round the prob­lem.

Cai Zhaoyang, then a student at Hangzhou Nor­mal Col­lege, called the San­lian Book­store “a place of en­light­en­ment.” In an on­line post, he re­called how he got ac­quainted with the shop as­sis­tant, and stayed read­ing be­hind the counter for a cou­ple of hours.

A few hun­dred me­ters across the street were the Zhe­jiang For­eign Lan­guages Book­store, which sold books in their orig­i­nal lan­guages, and the Mod­ern Book­store, boast­ing many clas­sic works of lit­er­a­ture.

At a time when the coun­try was just start­ing to open up, these places were an ex­cel­lent source for young peo­ple to catch up with the world out­side, which both the stu­dents and their teach­ers had missed in the past years of stag­na­tion.

Zhu re­mem­bers when they re­ceived from Bei­jing’s Com­mer­cial Press the first edi­tion of a se­ries of the “Trans­lated World Aca­demic Clas­sics.” The se­ries cov­ered a wide range of sub­jects, from Aris­to­tle’s “Me­ta­physics,” Plato’s “The Repub­lic,” to Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau’s “The So­cial Con­tract,” Sig­mund Freud’s “A Gen­eral In­tro­duc­tion to Psy­cho­anal­y­sis” and Charles Dar­win’s “On the Ori­gin of Species.”

“We never ex­pected them to be so pop­u­lar among read­ers. The se­ries sold out quickly and late­com­ers had to reserve with us,” Zhu re­called.

Three years work­ing at San­lian taught Zhu ev­ery as­pect of main­tain­ing a book­store. When she opened her own on Baochu Road, she kept the same stan­dard, es­pe­cially in the se­lec­tion of books.

One night after the store was opened for a year, a mid­dle-aged man came in and asked for sev­eral rare art and his­tor­i­cal books. When he got af­fir­ma­tive an­swers, he looked around the less-than-25-square-me­ter store in recog­ni­tion.

“He im­me­di­ately or­dered ‘Twen­tyFour His­to­ries’ (a set of his­tor­i­cal books cov­er­ing 24 dy­nas­ties of China from 3000 BC to the Ming Dy­nasty in the 17th cen­tury),” said Zhu. “It cost more than 1,000 yuan (US$146). The av­er­age sale then was be­tween 600 yuan and 700 yuan.”

By the time Xiaofeng moved to its present lo­ca­tion on Tiyuchang Road in 1999, the book­store busi­ness was thriv­ing in the area.

“From Baochu Road to Shuguang Road and Tiyuchang Road, there was a law book­store, an ar­chi­tec­ture book­store, an education book­store and two dis­count book­stores. That was the golden era of book­stores,” Zhu told Shang­hai Daily.

Some of the ear­li­est and most fre­quent Xiaofeng cus­tomers also be­came book­store own­ers later. In 2002, Yang Xiao­hai opened Tielu Book­store in west Hangzhou with funds earned from his job at an in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy com­pany after grad­u­at­ing from the then Hangzhou Uni­ver­sity.

But the sweep of the In­ter­net came faster than most peo­ple had thought. On­line book­stores such as Dang­dang. com and Joyo.com came into be­ing around the mil­len­nium.

In 2006, the iconic San­lian Book­store was closed down after mov­ing from West Lake to Hangda Road. Yang shut down his Tielu Book­store in 2011 after be­ing in deficit for more than eight years.

A re­port pub­lished in 2012 showed book sales in de­cline.

“Read­ers started to com­plain about our prices. They ques­tioned why we could not of­fer the same dis­count as those e-stores. That re­ally low­ered the morale of our em­ploy­ees,” said Zhu.

“What they did not know was that these In­ter­net com­pa­nies were sub­si­diz­ing the book­selling busi­ness greatly with prof­its earned from other busi­nesses.”

In 2012, the Hangzhou govern­ment launched the first sup­port­ive pol­icy in the coun­try to of­fer a yearly fund of up to 3 mil­lion yuan to pri­vately owned book­stores in the city. In 2014, Hangzhou be­came one of the 12 pi­lot cities to re­ceive tax ex­emp­tions for book­stores op­er­at­ing in whole­sal­ing and re­tail­ing busi­nesses.

Xiaofeng sur­vived, partly be­cause of its strat­egy of di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion from the be­gin­ning. As early as 1999, Xiaofeng es­tab­lished its own whole­sale cen­ter which now has over 300 out­lets through­out Zhe­jiang Prov­ince. It has also de­vel­oped its own de­riv­a­tive art prod­ucts.

Since 2005, Xiaofeng has been open­ing mul­ti­ple stores in care­fully se­lected lo­ca­tions in Hangzhou. The stores in places such as Zhe­jiang Art Mu­seum and China Na­tional Silk Mu­seum fea­ture books and prod­ucts re­lated to ex­hi­bi­tions. Stores at uni­ver­si­ties work as cul­tural sa­lons for fac­ulty and stu­dents.

Its lat­est lo­ca­tion at the No. 1 Hospi­tal Af­fil­i­ated to Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity School of Medicine, opened in Au­gust 2018, is part of an ef­fort to mark and cel­e­brate lo­cal history and cul­ture.

Its lo­ca­tion used to be the res­i­dence of two wealthy broth­ers Ding Bing and Ding Shen, whose fam­ily li­brary build­ing and its col­lec­tion more than 8,000 an­tique vol­umes still stands there be­side the book­store.

In the 1930s, in­flu­en­tial cul­tural fig­ures of the time in­clud­ing Con­fu­cius thinker Ma Yifu and artist Feng Zikai used to live nearby.

“For me this is not just a book­store, it is more of a cul­tural space deeply rooted in its his­tor­i­cal back­ground last­ing for more than 100 years,” Zhu said.

For the past 20 years, small pro­pri­etary book­stores have greatly di­min­ished in the city ei­ther due to new ur­ban plan­ning or the in­flu­ence of the In­ter­net.

In re­cent years, a new type of pri­vate book­store con­glom­er­ate is emerg­ing, with hun­dreds of chain stores open­ing across the coun­try, and a more stylish decor ca­ter­ing to the tastes of younger peo­ple.

Zhu said she was not afraid of com­pe­ti­tion.

“A city should be able to ac­com­mo­date book­stores of dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties. A more lo­cal­ized con­nec­tion is what I want to high­light. The best book­store in the fu­ture may lie in a most com­mon com­mu­nity, along­side ea­ter­ies, laun­dry stores and chil­dren’s play­grounds.”

A wall in­side Xiaofeng’s store, with cal­lig­ra­phy above which reads “Books are like medicine, which can rid you of fool­ish­ness if you’re a good reader.”

Xiaofeng’s Book­store at the No. 1 Hospi­tal Af­fil­i­ated to Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity School of Medicine

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