Turning a new page

Society & Culture

A look at six independent bookstores in Shanghai.

This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.


“They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.” —— an excerpt from Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel The Bookshop

In modern times, opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore can almost seem like a fool’s errand. Considering the proliferation of e-books and online shopping, the exorbitant cost of renting a storefront, and the new uncertainties that have arisen from the pandemic, it’s clear that the cards are stacked against physical bookshops now more than ever. A recent industry report of China’s bookstores outlines this grim reality with sobering statistics: between 2020 and 2021, for every new bookstore that opened, an average of 2.6 stores closed down. In this hostile environment, business acumen and clever marketing are essential to survival. But for a bookstore to truly succeed, what matters above all else are perhaps most dependent on the literature on offer and the people they’re meant for.

In Shanghai, a city where every inch of land is worth its weight in gold, there are still independent bookstores making it work. The existence of these places speaks not only to the tenacity of the owners but also to the fact that there are still a handful of pertinacious bookworms who accept no replacement for the tactile experience of reading a paperback.

No two bookstores are alike, and this is precisely what makes places such as Lekai Books, Melibrary, Rhino Bookstore, Distance Bookstore, Upper Bookstore, and Text&Image so irreplaceable. From the owner’s motivations to their curatorial approaches, every store is constantly changing, adapting, and hard at work in cultivating the local literary scene.


Rhino Bookstore

Situated alongside Suzhou River, Rhino Bookstore is a secondhand bookshop that has been through its share of ups and downs. Their first location opened in 2007, a distance away from downtown in the Minhang District. It shuttered its door just a year later, but the two then owners—Zhuang Jianguo and Ya Shu—refused to give up on their dreams so easily. Their next venture was a store specializing in poetry books, which similarly didn’t find footing. The two then split ways to open their own stores, with Ya reopening the poetry bookstore and Zhuang reopening Rhino Bookstore in a new location with his friend, Tou Tou.

The new location is a 30-square-meter store populated with wooden shelves loaded to the brim. The shop mostly deals in secondhand literature, all of which have been curated with a preference towards art, history, and philosophy. With their affordable but quality offerings, the space has become a place for literature lovers of all stripes. “We’re not just selling books,” says Tou. “The different editions we carry in our shop are what sets us apart.”

As he sees it, the differences between varying editions are one of the qualities that e-books can’t replace. Even though a book may have the same content and text, depending on the publishing date and the publisher, each print will be completely different. For true bookworms, these are an essential part of the literary experience.

To find the most sought-after editions of a book requires experience and industry know-how, which Zhuang and Tou are in no lack of. They regularly hunt down vintage books, searching through old markets and Taobao listings. When they come across a gem, they’ll spare no expense in purchasing it. For buyers in the know, the price is still a bargain for what they’re getting.

In 2015, before the new store opened, Zhuang even worked as a regular shop staff at an antique bookstore to better hone his eye for quality older books. Tou says that they were confident about opening this new store, and their past experiences have given them the resolve to weather any storm. “Improving the quality of our offerings, updating the literature on deck, and making the prices as affordable as possible are important to us,” he says. “We want to make sure that everyone who comes into our store can leave with a book they like.”

Address:
1040 N. Suzhou Road, A101
Jingan District, Shanghai

Hours:
14:00 ~ 20:30


Upper Bookstore

At 200 square meters, the sheer size of Upper Bookstore alone makes the independent bookstore a rarity in Shanghai. Its mezzanine, a key feature of the shop, has inspired the store name. Aside from the mezzanine, the space was fully renovated before opening its doors to the public in 2015.

The store originally focused on books written in simplified Chinese but now hosts an even larger selection of literature from Hong Kong and Taiwan, which come in traditional Chinese. This rich selection of books from Chinese-speaking regions outside the mainland set it apart from others in the city. Every book for sale has been handpicked by the management team, who lean towards human-interest literature that fall outside the bounds of mainstream. Aside from the content within a book’s pages, how it’s designed is another important factor they consider in the curation process. “Sometimes we’ll think we’re picking books that are too niche or obscure and worry about if people will even want to buy it,” says Wang Yi, the store manager. “But we ended up realizing a lot of people like this type of literature.”

Their unique selection has fostered a strong community of loyal readers who look forward to any new addition to their shelves. Wang admits that the store may sometimes feel daunting for new customers, but by having great titles on the shelves, people will naturally warm up to the store. Once they see the wide range of books available, customers require no additional convincing. The owners’ love of books shines in different ways throughout the space—from a sculpture crafted from salvaged books to a display on the second floor dedicated to books written about bookstores.

In response to the pandemic, Upper has trialed a number of new business models. They’ve hosted secondhand book exchanges, started a membership program, launched a paid-knowledge platform, and more. Despite these new additions, its reputation for quality has remained consistent.

Wang has been the manager ever since the store opened, and she believes its core ethos hasn’t wavered through thick and thin. “Even though its appearance has changed a lot, the store has stuck with its original philosophy,” she says. “It’s an inclusive place that welcomes all types of people and ideas. It won’t be easily steered away from its original direction by outside influence.”

 

Address:
129 Harbin Road
Hongkou District, Shanghai

Hours:
12:00 ~ 21:00

Photographer: FD Kyle
Photographer: FD Kyle

Distance Bookstore

Photographer: FD Kyle

With the pandemic, Upper Bookstore chose to increase its range of offerings and services, but Distance Bookstore’s method of survival was one of reduction.

Distance Bookstore is located on the second floor of a nondescript office building off of Suzhou Road. The owner, Zhou Ying, admits that when she decided to open the store in 2016, she went in with a rather naive mindset. “It was tough,” she notes but says that she was aware of the challenges that she’d face. Aside from just selling books, the store also peddles coffee, set meals, and can be rented out for small events. Even with these additional profit streams, the shop barely scraped by.

“I went in assuming that books alone wouldn’t be profitable, so I wanted to implement these other ideas,” she recalls. “I thought it’d also make the store feel more multidimensional, but in reality, they didn’t add much to the space.”

Her mindset changed after becoming a mother in the early days of the pandemic. She realized she didn’t have the energy to tend to these other aspects of the store and decided to concentrate more on the book-selling side of the business. “In reality, that was already a ton of work,” Ying says. “You have to keep up with new books being published, and stocking second-hand books is even more time-consuming. If I wanted to add 30 or 40 secondhand books, I’ll need to spend three or four days combing through the content. It’s also quite physically demanding, especially because I try to attend pop-up markets as well.”

Distance houses a healthy selection of both new and secondhand books, with even a small area dedicated to indie prints and publications. In the summer of 2021, the cafe area was further shrunk down to accommodate more bookshelves. This business pivot proved to be a hit with the customers. Today, the store—against all odds—is thriving as much as ever.

 

Address:
876 Jiangsu Road, Bldg. 3, 2F
Changning District, Shanghai

Hours:
12:00 ~ 21:00

 

 

Photographer: FD Kyle
Photographer: FD Kyle

Lekai Books

Photographer: FD Kyle

Lekai Books is a bookstore that’s in constant flux—endlessly experimenting, making mistakes, and learning from them. The store’s first location was in a subbasement level of a shopping mall off Loushanguan Road, tucked away in a difficult-to-find corner. It was the first bookstore in Shanghai to try a subscription model, loaning out books for a modest fee. At its peak, Lekai had three stores in the city.

There was one point where Lekai was completely shut down as well. For a small period of time, the founder— Zhao Yanping, more affectionately known by the nickname of Snail—closed down all the stores and hauled books around the country in their car, essentially becoming a mobile bookshop. In 2019, Lekai finally reopened a new store in a creative park off of Wending Road.

Upon entering, the store’s calming ambiance seems to immediately drown out the city’s bustle. The new store still offers a book rental service, but it hasn’t really affected their book sales, which have only increased over the years. “With a decade of experience, I believe that we’ve really polished our curatorial approach,” says Yanping. “We sell art products and offer coffee too, but they’re not what we’re good at. Our bread and butter is still selling books.”

Lekai carries more varied genres than the other shops on the list, but no shortage of effort has been put towards picking the best books from the differing categories—a metric Yanping quantifies by whether or not the book has re-read value. Their curation is painstaking work, but the effort truly shows.

Comprehensive knowledge of literature is required for this type of curation, and it’s a skill that Lekai isn’t reluctant in showcasing. Starting in 2019, the store began throwing events called Bookshelf X, which is designed to help patrons discover worthwhile books that they may otherwise miss out on. It’s not common for the store to host an event around a singular title, which they’ve done for Japanese photographer Ryoji Akiyama’s Chūgoku no Kodomotachi and Mitchell Duneier’s SidewalkThe store has also held numerous events supporting ECHO, a Taiwanese magazine with a focus on traditional Chinese culture.

In the summer of 2021, Bookshelf X ran a new show with a focus on local publications. The event spotlighted some of their favorite magazines from around the country. All of these events are meant to make literature and reading seem more approachable and fun, a goal that Yanping feels to be as important as ever.

 

Address:
218 Wending Road, Bldg. B, 2M
Xuhui District, Shanghai

Hours:
11:00 ~ 21:00

Photographer: FD Kyle


Melibrary

Melibrary is a store opened by Luo Qi, and it first opened its doors the same year as Lekai Books. During the pandemic, Luo was forced to rethink his approach to operating as a book retailer. Having been in the business since 2011, with past locations that include Haining Road, Wanti Guan, Pudong, Hongkou Museum, Fudan, and M50 Art District, Luo has always considered his shop as an experimental space rather than a traditional bookstore. Aside from just selling books, he frequently organizes events, exhibitions, live shows, reading clubs, round-table talks, poetry slams, and more. His stores, at their core, are places that can facilitate book lovers to meet one another. In 2019, Luo was propositioned by an investor to open a 240-square-meter store in Hangzhou, and he agreed. To focus his efforts, he closed his only two locations at the time. But in an unexpected turn of events, the pandemic hit, and the investor dropped out. For the first time in a decade, Luo found himself without a store.

“Without any locations to manage, I had time to reflect,” he says. “When I was running my stores, that was where all my attention was focused. Whether it was making money or not, my mental bandwidth was completely dedicated to those stores. But I was suddenly pulled out of that comfort zone. I consider it fortunate. I started thinking about how a bookstore could last in this digital age, how it can be made into something different.”

Luo, with a large remaining inventory of books, decided to move it all to a new store in Qinghu, a much cheaper area on the outskirts of Shanghai. The store was designed around the concept of a bookstore in the “wilderness.” Not long after, collaborating with a friend, he opened ShanShui Xu – Melibrary, a space where people can enjoy traditional Chinese tea and peruse great literature. This newest venture, the expansion of his philosophy around community and literature, now has locations in Wujiaochang and Xintiandi. The store operates around the philosophy of books being a bonding agent, one that can be used to connect people from different walks of life. To facilitate a stronger sense of community, these locations regularly host book clubs, salons, and discussion forums. While Luo has felt his efforts to be rewarding, he’s hardly complacent and believes that there’s still plenty more work to be done.

 

Address:
345 Guoxia Road, 3F
Yangpu District, Shanghai

Hours:
11:00 ~ 20:00


Text&Image

“Before considering how a bookstore can be profitable, I believe it’s more important to think about the bigger picture—for example, the merits of books as a medium and why reading is meaningful,” says Zhou Andi, the founder of Text&Image, a bookshop opened in the French Concession in 2020. “Is it possible that people in the future won’t need to think for themselves, and the most intelligent people of society will have the answers the masses are looking for? If thinking is no longer needed, then critical thought won’t be valuable. If that happens, then reading will become obsolete and books will be an item of luxury.”

As evidenced by Andi, not every indie bookstore owner has an optimistic outlook on the future of books, but their efforts in the present are undeniable. It’s an effort that’s best summed up in the Japanese novel Bookstore Die, which says that book retailers are the last stand against the death of physical books—these are people willing to stand up to the test even if there’s only a shred of hope.

To that effort, Text&Image isn’t only a bookstore. In 2018, it started off as a publisher and design studio. Their offices continue to operate in a room behind the retail space. Andi’s impetus in starting a publishing company and a bookstore are one and the same: he just wants to introduce good books to more people. He believes that less can be more, and his shop space operates under this ethos. Text&Image is mostly stocked with publications imported from overseas, and there’s a clear affinity towards niche titles with eye-catching designs. The genres available in the store run the gamut but lean towards art and sociology. Books aren’t just cluttered onto shelves—they’re stocked tidily, and with prices that match online shops, new books are constantly being stocked. “Our store is small, so I hope that every visitor can see the whole space when they come in, even if they don’t purchase anything,” he says. “It opens up the possibility of them discovering new publications that may broaden their worldview.”

The store’s curatorial chops and approachable environment has garnered many returning customers. “As a physical bookstore, there’s not a lot of margin,” Andi laughs. “Being profitable is near impossible, but we can at least break even. Knowing that it doesn’t turn profit makes it easy, and I know we can survive, but if I expect the store to generate income, then it becomes difficult.”

As of now, Text&Image is getting by and the positive feedback from customers has him feeling motivated, but Andi adds, “We still have time to improve upon the formula.”

 

Address:
42 Tianping Road
Xuhui District, Shanghai

Hours:
11:00 ~ 21:00


In the age of Taobao and Amazon, it’s hard for physical stores to compete with the low overhead of online-only retailers. But Yin of Distance Bookstore believes that in the case of purchasing books, the online experience is lacking. “Personally, when I buy books, only when I can see the book in front of me do I know whether or not it’s something I want to purchase,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m buying online. When I do try and order online, what I receive in real life is often different from what I originally envisioned.”

Yanping agrees with this sentiment. “A lot of customers who make a purchase do so after they come in and flip through our offerings,” he says. “Only then can they determine whether or not it’s something that they’d like to read. They understand the effort our store put into curation, and they enjoy being in a physical store, so they’ll choose to shop with us.”

Despite the perks of a physical location, all of these retailers naturally also make sales online. When the pandemic flared or when business slumped, WeChat and Weidian (a Chinese online shopping platform) have proved to be valuable tools. Convenient as they may be, these online channels are by no means ever the main focus. Even when a book is shown sold out on their online shop, Rhino Bookstore will often leave a few copies for customers who make the trek to their physical location. “We don’t want to disappoint customers who come and can’t find something they like,” Yin explains.

These owners, despite their varied goals, believe that the sense of community and the face-to-face interaction that a physical location offers simply can’t be replaced. This human warmth is worth their efforts.

Readers who cherish the tactility of a paperback are what keep these stores running, and a large percentage of the patrons are the younger generation. They range from passersby who work nearby to Taobao shoppers who are unable to find certain editions online. For these bookstores, no matter who they may be, customers aren’t simply customers—they’re the building blocks of the local community of readers.

Yin believes that the people who visit his store are what makes it such a special place. “Whenever I’m interviewed, they’ll ask if I can share an interesting story about some of my customers, and I’m never able to answer,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, everyone, is interesting in their own right.”

One person who recently finished a book came to Yin’s store and purchased a new copy, asking for it to be given away for free to the next person who comes along looking for the book. At Text&Image, one especially avid reader ordered several boxes of books. Their order was large enough that the owners became concerned, suggesting for them to finish a few books before coming back to purchase the rest. At Melibrary, a lot of attendees to their book club end up hosting future book clubs. Yi says the joys of a bookstore are cumulative, built up day after day.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop ends on a rather melancholic note:

“As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town she had lived in for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”

With the arrival of a new year, the bookstores we featured in this article have no plans of slowing their footsteps, but many others will be forced to shutter their doors for good. It’s a difficult environment, one that may force readers to ask themselves whether or not they need physical bookstores? Will we be ashamed of our answers?

No matter what the future may hold, perhaps now is as a good time as any to visit your local bookshop.


Contributor: Cheng LiChen Yuan
Photographer: Chu Jie
Additional Images Courtesy of FD Kyle

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