But financial realities also loom and the industry relies on innovation and government support to keep doors open
Light Space hopes to prove a bright idea to lure readers into bookstores.
The newly opened Xinhua Bookstore branch in Shanghai was designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who is known for his use of light and shadow.
Indeed, light illuminates structures, and reading brightens people’s minds.
Ando, 77, winner of the 1995 Pritzker Prize, often called the “Nobel of architecture”, employs his other signature style elements in Light Space, including the use of raw concrete and egg-shaped structures.
Another concept is the theme of “encounter”, which is demonstrated by the bookshelves, which are hallowed out in the center so readers see one another through them.
“I hope the space will increase people’s encounters with one another and with the books,” Ando said in a visit to the construction site in 2016.
Light Space is one of over 20 large bookstores that opened in Shanghai in 2017. Big cities such as Beijing, Nanjing, Shenyang and Hefei also are seeing more bookstores open.
Their recent development is partly thanks to national and local government measures introduced in June 2016, including subsidies, tax breaks and expedited business permits. More than 5 billion yuan ($791 million) of tax money has been exempted annually since 2013, People’s Daily reported. And the Ministry of Finance has provided 670 million yuan in bonuses to bookstores during the past five years.
Bookstores are showing signs of a revival, according to the 2017-18 Report on China’s Physical Bookstores, released recently by the Books and Periodical Distribution Association of China, and the Bookdao New Publishing Institute.
Xinhua Bookstore is actively exploring subsidiary brands to diversify its business. And the private chain Sisyphe had 111 branches nationwide that generated 520 million yuan in revenue last year, the report said.
This has pushed such e-commerce giants as JD.com and Tmall to build offline bookstores, it said. And dangdang.com, one of China’s earliest online booksellers, which has 160 physical stores, will build another 100 in 30 cities this year, Beijing Daily reported recently.
Brick-and-mortar bookstores are developing value-added experiences as they compete with online sellers, especially in the past two years.
Many stores, such as Light Space, emphasize design. A Xinhua Bookstore branch that opened in Baoding, Hebei province, in July won the German Red Dot: Best of the Best design award last year. The prize ranks among the world’s most prestigious design honors.
Finding a niche
Another marketing strategy has been to stock niche books that customers are willing to pay more for.
“I’m surprised to find books I enjoy yet aren’t well known on the shelves,” reader Wang Lin said as she wandered through a JIC Books store beside the Huangpu River in Shanghai.
Increasingly popular genres include the humanities, lifestyle, art, design and architecture.
Light Space’s manager Chen Jianhui said the store’s sales show philosophical books are also hot, which seemed counterintuitive. The store has also developed smart systems to enable readers to locate certain books more easily, he said.
“We focus on creating an ideal atmosphere for reading,” Chen said.
Many stores also sell creative and cultural products associated with a literary lifestyle, such as stationery, tea sets and coffee.
Some stores also offer dining, exhibitions and kids’ activities while also selling clothes and handicrafts, news aggregator toutiao.com reported. Many customers visit to take photos and selfies, the website said.
For example, at the Northern Book Town in Shenyang, Liaoning province, 65 percent of revenue comes from sales of books, 20 percent from dining, and 15 percent from cultural products, according to a People’s Daily report.
In addition to reading and buying books, many readers visit bookstores to kill time, look around, attend book lectures and signings, have drinks and snacks, or have a small chat, according to douban.com, a major website for ratings and reviews of books, films and music.
Some have become icons among readers.
The conceptual Sinan Bookstore in Shanghai’s Sinan Mansions, for instance, has also made a splash during its two months in operation, but closed this month.
The diamond-shaped building’s mobile shelves stock over 3,000 copies of over 1,000 books, hundreds of cultural items and many vinyl records from the 1970s.
It has invited over 60 celebrated writers to serve as “manager” for a day－that is, to meet and speak with readers.
Reader Chen Yani has visited the 30-square-meter store to meet her favorite writers. “The space is small. So I was very close to them,” she recalled. She stayed until after 9 pm to make the most of the opportunity. “I looked back when I left, and the bookstore was shining on the dark street. It seemed sacred.”
Some concerns raised
But the Report on China’s Physical Bookstores also pointed to concerns about the future, due to high cost of rent and labor and competition from online bookstores.
Industry expert San Shi wrote that stores are becoming homogeneous in terms of design and business models. Suzhou Phoenix Book Mall’s general manager, Zeng Feng, said there is little more physical stores can do to improve book sales.
And while new stores are opening, some old favorites are vanishing.
Shanghai’s 21-year-old Hanyuan Bookstore closed at the end of the year.
Zhai Defang, who is SDX Joint Publishing Co’s chief editor and Sanlian Taofen Bookstore’s general manager, wrote: “It’s still difficult for physical bookstores to survive. So more government support is vital.”
Sanlian Taofen Bookstore’s branch in Beijing’s Haidian district has reportedly endured heavy losses since it opened on April 23－World Reading Day－in 2015.
It stopped remaining open 24 hours a day, which was one of its special features.
Still, many insiders see hope, including Liao Mei-li, who was co-founder of Taiwan’s Eslite Bookstore and is the Fangsuo Bookstore chain’s chief consultant.
“Bookstores are responsible for the transfer of knowledge and the cultivation of taste within the cultural industry. This is how we must stand out.”
Time will tell if this will ultimately prove a bright point for physical bookstores’ future.