New type of bookstores sweep across urban China
The Shanghai Sanlian bookstore in the east of Beijing aims to create a new kind of urban lifestyle for its customers. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
In a sprawling metropolis of more than 20 million inhabitants, it's normal for a subway ride to take up to an hour and a half. And that's the time it took me to get to the Shanghai Sanlian Bookstore, which is in a bustling modern shopping mall.
After taking a lift to the ninth floor, the bustle fades away and a spacious, tranquil bookstore embraces me.
Five months into its existence, the bookstore has tapped into the popularity of the shopping center, called Chaoyang Joy City.
Zhang Xin, the store's deputy executive manager, says the 3,000-square-meter shop has been designed to make it look like both a huge office space and a fashionable library.
With floor to ceiling bookshelves stuffed with books on all sorts of subjects – obviously literature, arts, economics, and history, but many others – customers have a huge choice.
Yet, Zhang Xin says the bookstore centers around books involving deep-thinking: "You may not easily find the trendy books here. Compared with other bookstores, we don't have as many motivational books or books about how to make money, or how to start and manage a business. But you can find a wide range of books about humanities and social sciences."
The bookstore draws many of its books from the Shanghai Sanlian Press, a major state-owned publisher based in the economic hub of Shanghai. It specializes in publishing books on humanities and social sciences.
This preference for deep-thinking and largely intellectual books has won the hearts of many of its customers.
Beside an exhibition stand at the end of one bookshelf, a sturdy-looking man is bending over to gaze at a large photograph book. As I'm hesitating about whether it's right to disturb him by asking a few questions, he lifts his eyes and gives me a smile.
After I introduce myself, the middle-aged man identifies himself as Mr. Zhang. Zhang tells me that the bookstore is an ideal place in which to enjoy books.
As a book lover and frequent visitor to book shops, Zhang says he can find the books he likes here. And every time he comes here, he stays for a whole day searching and reading.
"I'm a photographer. So I mostly read books about photography, such as oil paintings and other drawings. I also like reading novels and philosophical books," says Zhang.
The Sanlian bookstore was designed to look like both a huge office space and a fashionable library, proving to be popular among Beijing’s readers. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
Unlike Mr. Zhang, Yang Luolin, in her early 20s, came across the bookstore by chance when she was eating out in the shopping mall.
After getting a close look, Yang says the bookstore has given her a different experience even though she admits she is not a book lover: "This bookstore is quite good. There are a great number of books here. The environment is fashionable and appealing to our young people.
“As well as buying and reading books here, you can relax in the coffee and tea area. Staying here makes me feel tranquil and relaxed while picking up a book to enjoy reading."
This kind of experience actually reverses a long-standing impression of traditional Chinese bookstores, which offered few or no encouraging reading spaces.
By comparison, a comfortable reading space and a coffee or tea area have become an essential part of the newly emerged well-designed and modern bookstore.
Zhang Xin, deputy executive manager of the Sanlian bookstore, says the new services have paid off from a financial perspective though she declines to give the exact numbers:
"Previously we thought that a bookstore wouldn't attract many customers. In fact the numbers of customers visiting our store have been beyond our expectations. I think that's because our bookstore has created enticing lifestyle spaces, including a coffee area, a glass-walled place to look out at the city and an exercise space.
“For example, you can do exercises in the morning and then have a cup of coffee while picking up a book to read or doing your work. Through these combined services and the emphasis on reading, we've created a new kind of urban lifestyle for our customers."
Yu Yishuang, who is in charge of promoting the Sanlian bookstore, says it is also trying to cultivate a culture of reading among urban residents:
"We usually hold promotional events at the weekends, when customers flock here. Our activities are similar to those held by other book shops. For example, a symposium is often held after a newly published book goes on sale here. “With these activities, we aim to serve as a bridge between publishers, authors and readers so that they can communicate face to face."
Zhang Xin is optimistic that such kind of bookstores will have a growing market share as residents become richer and have more free time:
"After your daily necessities, such as food, clothing, housing, etc., have been paid for, you may feel you need to pursue a kind of cultural or intellectual life. Bookstores provide one of the best ways to satisfy this kind of public need."
Residents in the metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai have among the highest living standards in China. The two cities, each with a population of more than 20 million, have long been the cultural centers of the country. Book shops are now an essential part of the life in them, and they are home to a great number of writers, artists, scholars and other well-educated residents.
On average in China in 2018, each person bought five and a half printed books. This is one book more each than the year before, according to a survey conducted by Alibaba group, China's largest e-commerce giant. The same survey found that Shanghai boasts the largest number of regular book readers among all the cities followed by Beijing.
About a year ago, Xi Zhigang formed a new habit: visiting a newly-opened book shop near his home next to Xizhimen, a major subway intersection in Beijing.
The thin, middle-aged man is one of the frequent visitors to the Sisyphe Bookstore housed in a shopping mall adjacent to the subway hub.
He comes to Sisyphe three times a week, each time staying for a whole morning or afternoon. What interests him most are the biographies and books about economics and management.
A bookworm, he says this place is better for him than the All Sages Bookstore: "This bookstore is more modern while the All Sages Bookstore is more classical. But the shortcoming of the All Sages is its coffee area, which is too small."
Situated near the prestigious Peking and Tsinghua universities, the All Sages Bookstore is another popular place for Beijing's readers.
As Xi Zhigang says, that bookstore doesn't have an attractive coffee area compared with Sisyphe, which boasts a 150-square-meter one.
The modern coffee area in Sisyphe has brought extra enjoyment to bookworms, but it is only an addition to the 750-square-meter bookstore.
He Keren, manager of the Xizhimen Sisyphe bookstore, explains: "Sisyphe mainly focuses on book sales and services. The book area makes up 75 to 80 percent of the whole area of each of our chain stores. The rest is taken up by coffee services and other creative artistic works.
“When it comes to the income of our bookstores, that coming from book sales comprises more than 70 percent of the total. So the main point to get across to customers is that Sisyphe is mainly about books."
The Sisyphe bookstore is next to Xizhimen, a major subway intersection in Beijing. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
Sisyphe is a chain-store brand that has made its footprint in more than 60 Chinese cities, with more than 200 bookstores serving readers. The name Sisyphe draws inspiration from Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology.
Sisyphe's mother company says it mainly targets first-tier metropolises, such as Beijing and Shanghai, and other cities in relatively developed regions, including Qingdao and Hangzhou.
During the year between January 2017 and February 2018, seven Sisyphe bookstores were opened in Beijing alone.
Its newest and largest bookstore in the Chinese capital opens on April 27th to the public. The bookstore is situated within the Guomao shopping mall, in a high-end downtown of east Beijing.
Company figures claim that some 110 million customers visited its bookstores around the country in 2018. This means that some 1,500 people visit one of the 200 Sisyphe bookstores each day.
With the large customer base, the company says it earned about 900 million yuan in revenue or about 130 million US dollars throughout the year.
The largest Sisyphe bookstore in Beijing opens on April 27th, its mother company’s latest efforts to tap into the mega-city’s book market. [Photo: courtesy of Sisyphe]
How has such rapid expansion come about?
Unlike the Sanlian bookstore in the east of Beijing, Sisyphe employs big data technology to find out what the trendiest books are so it can highlight them in its bookstores.
He Keren says customers can find the newly published and on-trend books right after they walk into the bookstores: "Our books cover a wide range of topics. Some book shops may target a niche customer base with books that aren't popular with the general reader.
“But our bookstore sells popular and trendy books as well as those that are easier to read for the general public.
“We display the newly arrived or newly published books on the recommended exhibition tables. We also regularly and incrementally change the recommended books on show in this section. This kind of book renewal gives people working and living nearby a fresh feeling every time they visit, if they come in often."
Sisyphe employs big data technology to find out what the trendiest books are and then highlight them in its bookstores. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
The Sisyphe bookstore also offers less popular but intellectually significant books as well as many other books that have high design quality.
For these books, a meticulous catalogue system is being used to help readers navigate the numerous titles.
"We have a three-tier catalogue system to present our books. For example, books on these shelves are about social sciences, and this shelf, history. When you get around these shelves, there are third-tier signs showing where you can find books about World War II. With this catalogue system, we hope to help readers better navigate our bookstore and get what they want quickly," says He Keren.
In another effort to fend off the fierce competition from online bookstores, the bricks-and-mortar bookstore also offers discounts, which is a standard practice of the online shops.
He explains: "Every Wednesday, customers who have our membership card can get 12 percent off the normal price of all the books here. Non-members can also benefit from discounts in certain periods.
“As World Book Day falls on April 23rd, we have designated certain books for everyone to buy at 15 percent off the normal price for the whole month of April."
As e-commerce flourishes, online book sales have dealt a heavy blow to traditional physical bookstores.
According to an industry report, more than 60 percent of retail book sales were through online channels in 2018.
A survey by Alibaba group shows that Tmall.com is the most popular e-commerce platform where Chinese readers buy printed books. In 2018, more than a billion books were dealt with on Tmall, comprising a third of retail book sales of the whole country.
Yet so far, it seems the new type of bookstore, like Sisyphe, has withstood the online competition. The company behind Sisyphe says it plans to open 100 new bookstores across the country within the year to expand its book business even further.
As the Sisyphe manager takes me around its Xizhimen chain store, I can see that the reading area, with its long table and high stools, is fully occupied. All of the readers there seem to be lost in what they are reading.
I grab an opportunity to ask a young lady questions as she gets up to put her book back on the shelf.
The young lady identifies herself as Ms. Wu and says she's about to graduate from college. Wu says she stays at Sisyphe for hours, but she is not a bookworm. It's the environment that keeps her here.
"This kind of bookstore is great. It gives you a good environment to think, study or plan for your life as well as reading. In this atmosphere, I am calmed as I read," says Wu.
The reading area of Sisyphe’s Xizhimen outlet. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
In fact, these two bookstores in Beijing are just two of a growing number of new bookstores appearing along with new technologies and government support.
Across China, 225-thousand bookstores and sales outlets for books had appeared in the country by the end of 2018. That's a four percent increase on the previous year, according to an annual report on the country's bookstore industry.
Issued by China's Books and Periodicals Distribution Association, the report says the revitalization of bookstores is largely due to the favorable policies unveiled in recent years.
So far, most of the provincial-level governments have rolled out measures to boost the industry after a national guideline was issued in 2016.
Taking Beijing as an example, 50 million yuan in subsidies has been distributed to some 150 bookstores in the city since the release of the municipal policies in July 2018. It's expected that such favorable government policies will further boost the growth of bookstores.
On the national level, surveys conducted by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication have recorded an annual increase in the number of books each Chinese adult read. The number doubled to eight for 2017 from that of 2010. Last year, China saw another 30 million people become regular readers.
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