Seizing on every gimmick, bookshops try to turn the page after epidemic
“I just love the smell of an old bookstore and the feel of the crisp pages along my fingertips.” — Leah Spiegel
The American author of “Foolish Games” and other books expresses the feelings of many bookworms who prefer the printed page to e-reading. They revel in the serendipity of browsing through a bookshop and stumbling across new authors and titles. And old bookshops often do have a musty whiff arising from so many vintage volumes.
Alas, the novel coronavirus epidemic has interrupted this pleasure for Shanghai bookworms. With readers confined to their homes, many bookshops — especially the smaller, independent stores — are suffering a cash crunch that could spell their demise.
Bookstores were in trouble long before the virus hit. Online booksellers offering heavy discounts and free delivery service have peeled off customers, and reading itself as a pastime competes with myriad entertainment choices, both online and off.
Walking a thin line, bookstores have had to come up with survival plans amid the epidemic. Some bookstores even turned to crowdfunding to try to save themselves.
China’s trendy bookstore chain OWSpace issued a plea last month for customers to help keep its business afloat by buying prepaid cards, valued at between 200 yuan (US$29) and 8,000 yuan. Readers could also choose to transfer a minimum amount of 50 yuan and, in return, get a 2020 calendar — a signature derivative product of OWSpace.
OWSpace has four stores in Beijing, Hangzhou and Qinhuangdao. According to its founder, only one store in Beijing remained open last month. The number of customers shrank to about 10 percent of normal trade, with the shop lucky to sell even 15 books a day. Sales plummeted more than 80 percent in February.
Other bookstores around the country, including Nanjing-based Librairie Avant-Garde and Xiamen-based Wormhole Bookshop, are also organizing crowdfunding campaigns in the form of prepaid cards and membership benefits.
In Shanghai, some chain bookstores located in shopping malls have been among the first to reopen.
A few, like a SiSYPHE bookstore branch in a shopping mall in Hongkou District, have remained open through the epidemic. According to SiSYPHE staff, the shop had 70 to 80 visitors a day during the outbreak, compared with normal daily trade well over 700. The shop’s cafe area is temporarily closed.
At Yan Ji You bookstore’s branch in a shopping center in Changning District, no more than five customers were browsing through the shop on a recent workday afternoon. The spacious store is the home to a few art and handcrafts workshops, which are temporarily closed during the epidemic.
“My office is not far away, so I come here for lunch break,” said a customer surnamed Hu, who claims to read about 80 books a year.
“I still buy books from stores, maybe one out of five,” Hu told Shanghai Daily. “The rest I get from online platforms that offer discounts. But bookstores are definitely my spiritual home. After a lousy day at work, a small trip to a bookstore serves as a great pick-me-up.”
Bookstores often enjoy preferential treatment, including low rent, from shopping malls that see them as a veneer of intellectual culture that might attract more upmarket customers.
SiSYPHE President Jin Weizhu said in a previous interview that some shopping malls were charging bookstores just 10 percent of regular rent, and some even let the space for free.
JIC Books, located in an office complex at the North Bund, resumed operation on March 2. For now, it operates only on weekdays. According to store manager Xie Chongcheng, the bookstore has received 15 to 20 customers a day since reopening, a far cry from the usual 200 visitors.
“We resumed operation not so much to make profits but to accommodate the desire of our loyal customers who want to visit the shop again and resume their normal lives,” Xie told Shanghai Daily.
Before reopening, the shop introduced a series of online activities, including reading clubs and communications with the operators of cultural institutions.
JIC Books occupies four stories, rent free, in a commercial building on Gongping Road. The building belongs to its parent JIC Group. A bright hall on the fourth floor, which overlooks the Huangpu River, serves as a “living room” for offline activities like lectures and small-scale performances.
According to Xie, the bookstore’s specialty is biography, though it has expanded to books on the development history of companies and countries, documentary films and photography.
The bookstore makes full use of resources it has amassed over the years through its connections with cultural institutes, publishers, universities and writers. It organizes offline activities like culture-themed dialogues, film screening and painting exhibitions. It even hosts drama and musical promotional activities, combining them with book resources related to theatrical creations based on literary classics.
“Our offerings are varied, but they are all based on the theme of encouraging rational thinking,” said Xie.
In the past decade, many of the country’s new bookstores have padded profits by selling side products like stationery and creative gifts, and by setting up cafe areas. Stores that rely solely on book sales and brisk foot traffic usually don’t have the financial resources to survive more than three months if a cash squeeze occurs.
At JIC Books, Xie said the income from books, the cafe and derivative products accounts for no more than half of profits. Renting out space to specialized groups and functions can add more than 1 million yuan a year to profit.
“The store is not subsidized directly by the government, but we do provide paid services to government departments,” Xie said. “For example, the district’s publicity department has a budget for cultivating public reading habits. The budget can be used to buy books for local libraries. But when the epidemic stalled logistics and deliveries, we set up an online reading project, paid for by the government as a public service.”
Xie admitted that free rent helps a lot.
“Before starting in this business, bookstore operators should prepare themselves for the fact that bookstores are not very profitable,” said Xie. “We went into the business out of love for literature. We help readers develop reading tastes, organize free lectures and provide communication platforms for bookworms. These are precious values of bookstores. Operators of modern bookstores must embrace commerce and technology, and keep an open mind on everything. A bookstore can be much more than what it looks.”
Xie bought a 600 yuan prepaid card to support OWSpace, a bookstore he said he has liked since his school days. But he said a business can’t run on reader charity.
“Instead of relying on readers’ sympathy, we need to build up our strength and let the market evaluate our ability,” said Xie.
As Shanghai begins to return to business as usual, the city’s bookstores are gradually reopening. A few have preferred to play it safe and stayed shut for the time, which will reduce overhead costs.