The Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing’s nightlife district of Sanlitun is a soaring, luminescent statement of the city’s wealth, modernity, and internationalism, a gaudy building whose flashing lights often overpower all else. Yet in the three years since the Intercontinental opened, if you wanted an even more powerful statement of Beijing’s vitality, you would find it across the road, in an unassuming courtyard that hosts an unimpressive building. There, atop narrow steps and through a sliding door, is The Bookworm, founded as a simple lending library 13 years ago before evolving into the library-café-bar-bookshop it is today. Its range of books, screenings, and events has made it an attractive spot for expats, tourists, and locals alike, starting from a time when Sanlitun was far from the entertainment center it is today. For more than a decade, The Bookworm has been a public hub of intellectual life, fostering dialogue and bridging cultures.
Yet despite its popularity, The Bookworm announced its closure today, citing the city’s “ongoing cleanup of ‘illegal structures’” and an inability to “secure an extension of our lease.” Details remain vague. The bookstore has faced financial difficulty for a while now, having closed down its Suzhou and Chengdu locations within the past year, but no matter the exact reason for its impending closure (November 11 will be its final day), what’s clear is that Beijing will be poorer for The Bookworm’s absence.
To cynics, The Bookworm’s free flow of ideas made censors bristle, and its international spirit chafed against the climate of cultural homogenization. Evidence that politics is at play is scarce at this stage, but the notion that loss-making stores fail in China overestimates the freedom of its markets. For years, SOEs have guzzled state subsidies and turned losses. If Beijing had wanted to support The Bookworm and its objective — to promote cross-cultural dialogue and world culture in a city often accused of lacking it — it would not have been expensive to do so. This place is worth saving. Just a few months back, it helped organize the EU Literary Festival in Beijing. It is chilling to think that The Bookworm might have been allowed to fail simply because its agenda, including its own internationally renowned literary festival, was not — how shall we put it — exactly sanctioned.
To those hesitant to overstate China’s authoritarianism, The Bookworm occupies expensive property, and its existence represents an opportunity cost, especially as more viable businesses look to move in (you might have heard, but selling books isn’t great business). Either way, the city is going to lose an organic nexus of intellectual life, and the world will lose yet another of those rarest of breeds, the independent bookseller. We’re all worse for it.