Balancing the books as they fly off the shelves and into the app

Shanghai Book City survives in the digital age by combining new online formats with traditional selling methods.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Book lovers pore over the wares at Shanghai Book City, once the city’s largest bookstore, in downtown.

Shanghai Book City, once the city’s largest bookstore, got its name from its sheer size and range of its inventory. This year, the store on Fuzhou Road is celebrating its 20th anniversary. 

Not content with looking back, the store is trying to transform itself to become more in tune with the modern reading habits of the digital age.

Bookstore manager Tao Jianmin, 52, was in charge of the first and second floors when the shop opened on December 30 in 1998. He still recalls the scene. People were waiting in lines that snaked around the building.

“Just like the queues at the Shanghai Book Fair today,” he said.

As many as 3,000 customers come to the store each day, though that number can swell to 10,000 at peak times. 

As many large bookstores are popping up in the city, Shanghai Book City remains the favorite of local readers. It has several branches.

Plans to create a gigantic book emporium in Shanghai began in the early 1960s but were suspended during the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976). They were revived in the 1980s, when Fuzhou Road was chosen as the site, drawing on the area’s cultural history.

In the 1990s, Shanghai was home to more than 200 Xinhua bookstores. With the exception of an outlet on Nanjing Road E. and the Shanghai Science and Technology Bookstore on Henan Road M., most of the stores were small.

“Book City was large to mirror the city,” Tao said. “Our goal was to build the biggest bookstore in Shanghai and the best bookstore in China.”

One of the snags in the planning process were the 236 households occupying the bookstore site. Because it was such a prime location, convincing people relocate to other areas was difficult. It took 14 months to get all residents to agree to move. Twenty-three organizations based at the site also had to relocate before construction could begin.

Prior to the bookstore’s opening, Tao was responsible for arranging books from the first to third floors. Every day, he and his team worked from 7am to 11pm, unpacking boxes of books and shelving the volumes. It was December, and they ate their meals at the back gate of the store, despite the chill.

To stimulate public interest, the bookstore held Shanghai’s Book Market, a weeklong precursor of the current Shanghai Book Fair. 

“We were worried whether any people would come to Book City,” Tao told Shanghai Daily. “That’s why we decided to hold the Book Market. Admission was by ticket only and tickets cost 3 yuan (44 US cents) each.”

Tao and his associates need not have worried. The long queues outside the venue said it all.

“It’s hard to imagine the scene if you weren’t there,” Tao said. “You could see nothing but the tops of people’s heads. We were under great pressure at the time. Many employees were young and being trained on the job. Most weren’t familiar with publishing.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Book City’s revenue grew year by year, bolstered by its huge variety of books and popular reading events. The bookstore’s 500 copies of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” sold out in three days. 

The success of Book City was good news for Fuzhou Road. New restaurants and shops opened.  

It was also a boon to the local publishing industry. New bookshops, like Shanghai Popular Bookmall and Scholar Books, opened to join older stores like the Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore and Shanghai Ancient Books Shop on the road.

Book City evolved with the times. 

“The first six floors used to be almost exclusively devoted to books,” said Tao. “But with the rise of audio and video products, we greatly expanded the space given to them.”

Educational books also spread along the shelves. 

“As audio and video products ebbed in popularity, we reduced that space and combined them with children’s books on the sixth floor,” said Tao.

The sixth floor is now the Madeleine Picture Book House where children can play and read.

The biggest threat to traditional bookstores in recent times is e-commerce. Many brick-and-mortar stores have been forced to close as consumers turned to digital channels to buy or read books. Sales in traditional bookstores in China declined nearly 3 percent in the first half of this year, while online book sales rose more than 20 percent.

Shanghai Book City now works with Alibaba’s Tmall and Amazon online platforms and does some promotion via apps like WeChat.

Tao said a bookstore needs to move with the times, offering services unavailable online. Plans are afoot to renovate Book City into a “smart” site combining online and offline services.

“For example, readers can come here and use their mobile phones to locate books they want or find information on books they are considering,” he said. “They can have a look at a book, hold it in their hands, and if they like it, they can order it online.”

“The fittest will survive,” Tao said. “If you cannot change your environment, then you must change yourself.”

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