Bookstore goes ancient to thrive in a digital era

Zhou Li walked into the Qingguo bookstore decorated in the ancient Chinese garden style, ordered a drink and spent a relaxing afternoon, reading a book.

Zhou Li walked into the Qingguo bookstore decorated in the ancient Chinese garden style, ordered a drink and spent a relaxing afternoon, reading a book. “I will have dinner here later,” she said. 

The bookstore, decorated with bamboo, old bricks and tiles, opened in a corner of the larger Xinhua bookstore in Changzhou City, the eastern Jiangsu Province, to attract customers at a time when brick-and-mortar bookstores are losing out to e-reading and online shopping.

Zhu Jingtao, manager of Qingguo, said the bookstore hosts art saloons and reading sections apart from selling books. In 2017, Qingguo’s book sales volume nearly equaled that of its other businesses.

Founded in 1937 in Yan’an of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, the main base of the Communist Party of China in revolutionary times, the Xinhua bookstore was once the largest state-run publisher in China.

The four Chinese characters “Xin Hua Shu Dian” on the signboards of the Xinhua bookstores, written by Chairman Mao in the 1940s, form a collective memory for generations of Chinese readers.

Decades ago, Xinhua was the only choice for book buyers in many Chinese cities. The four characters have become a cultural symbol.

However, the rise of e-commerce and private bookstores that put more emphasis on customer experience have overshadowed the Xinhua bookstores, leaving them desolate, evoking a sense of nostalgia.

Unyielding to the change of times, the old publishing giant now is exploring a new life.

In Baoding City of Hebei Province, a Xinhua bookstore is called “the most beautiful bookstore” by some due to the idyllic atmosphere it creates.

In northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province that borders Russia to the north, a Xinhua bookstore in Mudanjiang City was renovated into a China-Russia communication platform with many Russian language books available and cultural gatherings involving Chinese and Russian readers are held.

Feeling the punch of booming e-commerce, the Xinhua bookstores now turn to the virtual world to expand their businesses. Changzhou Xinhua bookstore established an e-commerce department at the beginning of 2013. Luo Kai with the e-commerce department still remembers how thrilled he and his colleagues were when receiving the first order. “Several of us volunteered to deliver that book together,” he says.

However, the online business was not as good as they expected. The store could only receive three to four orders a day. Inspired by other online sellers, they cooperated with a popular writer, asking her to post the link of the store on her Sina Weibo account. It received more than 1,000 orders in the following three days, so the store started doing promotions targeting online buyers. 

The Changzhou store has seen its sales volume exceeding 400 million yuan (US$61.5 million) in 2017, ranking first among all Xinhua chain stores in the 13 major cities in Jiangsu.

“We should not just sit there blaming others about changing habits in reading and consumption,” said He Zhifeng, general manager of the Changzhou store. “Sometimes it only takes a different approach to make a fresh start.”

Special Reports