The future of bookstores – three Chinese perspectives

The digital revolution has had a profound effect on the practice of reading: tablets, e-readers, blogs, and multimedia channels have changed the way we read and our views of writing. As a result, traditional bookstores are under threat and booksellers are suffering.

This change is not limited to the West: in China too, electronic writing has partly replaced print and physical bookstores have shut their doors. The three articles summarized below address key aspects of this change. The first is by an economic journalist; the second by a bookstore owner. Both provide personal perspectives on the future of bookstores in Chinese cities. The third is a reflective piece by the highly regarded film critic and public intellectual Cui Weiping who argues that reading good books is crucial for ensuring that human minds do not fall into lethargy.

According to statistics reported in the media, some 10,000 Chinese bookstores closed down from 2007 to 2009. Competition from a growing number of online publishers and booksellers is part of the cause. But the digital age has brought about deeper changes in the book industry, with readers preferring not only shorter forms of writing but varieties of multimedia content that can only be accessed online. Not surprisingly, all of this has had adverse effects on bricks-and-mortar bookstores as commercial entities.

The future of actual bookstores

Chen Jibing 陈季冰 is a Shanghai-based reporter on economic and financial affairs for Shanghai Business Daily. In this article, published in April 2012, he reflects on the role of bookstores and considers several options for keeping them going in Chinese cities.

Are those actual bookstores, smelling of ink and giving us spiritual sustenance, fated to disappear from our urban lives? I feel that the answer lies in what we mean by an actual bookstore. We can give a strict definition, in which case those shops that cover costs purely by selling books certainly have no future. The larger the city, the more quickly its bookstores will disappear under the pressure of rising rent and other costly expenditures. But if our society can gradually come to believe that a bookstore is not just any business; that it isn’t like the bars, flower shops, bakeries and fruit stands that have replaced the bookstores on the road outside our newspaper offices, then we can’t say that bookstores don’t stand a chance of surviving in the digital age.

I remember back in 2009 when the flagship Monsoon Book Store 季风书店 (Jifeng shudian) at the South Shaanxi Road subway station in Shanghai was facing its demise due to an expired lease, and media in Shanghai and across the country stirred up a war of public opinion on the topic of ‘saving Monsoon’, ultimately ensuring its survival to this day. At the time, someone came up with the highly persuasive view that Monsoon was not just a bookstore but one of Shanghai’s ‘cultural calling-cards’. As an undecided observer of this lively controversy and as a free-market supporter, I could not agree with those who called for the property owner (the subway company) or the government to subsidise Monsoon, yet I found myself in agreement with the general notion that a bookstore has a certain social value (called ‘positive externalities’ in economics).

Chen Jibing proposes three possible models for bookstores to survive into the future: provision of government subsidies, similar to those for schools or hospitals; social contributions, similar to those provided by charitable organisations; or the supplementation of bookstore income with additional activities and cultural events. There have already been some instances of government support for bookstores, either by providing tax cuts, through direct subsidies, or by setting space aside specifically for bookstore in downtown renewal schemes. However, government support for bookstores often comes with strings attached. With the state’s direct involvement in the establishment and running of bookstores it is unlikely that cultural diversity, of the kind that independent bookstores have helped to foster, will continue to flourish.

Original article: 陈季冰, 实体书店的未来, Southern Metropolis Daily 南方都市报, 1 April 2012.


Specialisation as a way forward

Liu Suli 刘苏里 is the owner of Beijing’s All Sages Bookstore 万圣书店, one of the key cultural spots in the Chinese capital. In an interview published in the 5 May 2011 edition of the Shanghai-based paper Oriental Morning Post, he insisted on the importance of specialization for the survival of bookstores, arguing that niche markets exist to support stores focused on novels, film, and other specialties even when large chains might struggle. Bookstore chains have less symbolic value, he opined, and when one closes, the public sees it as less important than if an iconic ‘cultural’ bookstore were to be under threat.

Liu acknowledged that new publishing technologies and new forms of writing that accompanied the digital revolution present a serious threat to actual bookstores. However, he predicted that sometime in 2018, a new balance would be achieved between print and electronic writing, noting that bookstores would have commercial prospects once more but that many would have disappeared before that time.

Q: So when talking about the future of bookstores, we’re actually talking about the future of reading, and the future of reading is actually the future of e-reading.

Liu Suli: The future of e-reading is a big issue. How will payment be handled by new publishing? But lots of publishers these days are coming up with nonsense, and I haven’t seen any signs that they’ll be successful. Getting customers isn’t the problem, the problem is content. So should the content providers provide the device? Or should the device manufacturer put the content through? The two seem to belong to separate worlds. If we look at the way that all enterprises accord with some form of internal standardization, as far as content is concerned, no one’s able to do anything about it. If anyone tells me they’re working on (a formula for) content, I know they’re bullshitting me. Because I know what the future of reading should be, and their bullshit isn’t intentional; they’re just feeling around in the dark, in Plato’s cave, in the absence of any light. Do you know what is the concept of new publishing in the future? As plentiful as clouds, with content provided by the power of god — an unimaginably large group of people — with everyone creating content. How can a publishing agency provide that? And when you think about it, that’s why print culture and bookstores won’t disappear in the short term, because that power has not yet been born. But the thinking behind that power is here already.

Q: So are you waiting for that day to arrive? After all, it’s a force that will put an end to your bookstore.

Liu Suli: I’m waiting for that day. It’s not something that can be stopped, and if you haven’t yet thought of it, someone else definitely has. People may have different ways of getting there but there’s the one direction. Only when that situation presents itself, whatever shape or form it takes, will there be a revolutionary transformation in print culture that will be immensely beneficial to everyone seeking to acquire, master and use knowledge. Print culture to a large degree restricts the amount of knowledge that people can master, because knowledge is power. In the future, after publishing is revolutionized, many of these limitations will have been destroyed.

Original article: 石剑峰, 刘苏里谈书店的未来, Oriental Morning Post 东方早报, 29 May 2011.


If people who read books don’t go to the bookstore, where will they go?

Cui Weiping 崔卫平 is a famous Beijing film and cultural critic, and a regular visitor to Liu Suli’s All Sages Bookstore.

This reflective essay on the power of books starts with Cui’s description of the deep pleasure she feels when getting ready to go to a bookstore, and how emotional she was when once her teenage daughter, on learning that she was at the All Sages bookstore, began texting her repeatedly, begging for a book. Cui attributes her deep attachment to bookstores to the magical power of books: she writes of the capacity of books to transport you to a different world or to fill your mind with incomparable sweetness.

In the latter part of Cui’s essay, she explores the pleasures of reading and expanding one’s mind – rather than running after power and wealth.

Books, she says, make you look to the future. Once, when important debates were raging in Beijing, Cui had to return to her hometown where there was no-one interested in discussing these matters. She recalls being sustained in spirit by Graham Greene during this time: in between family dinners and obligations, reading allowed her to escape the boredom and to keep her mind on track.

Cui cites Cavafy’s poem ‘Waiting for the barbarians’ and identifies boredom as a great enemy of civilisation. She says that boredom is a state of idle waiting in which one feels that life has no meaning, and where there is nothing to expect. To accept this lethargy, she says, is to poison oneself and to undergo a form of self-degradation. She ends her essay with an exhortation to readers to take responsibility for their spiritual life and to do something to resist apathy and boredom. For her own part, Cui writes, ‘I set my standards by going to the All Sages Bookstore’.

Original article: 崔卫平, 读书人不去书店,又去哪里呢, The Economic Observer online 经济观察网, 6 December 2011.