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Independent bookstores face uncertain future in China

SiSIPHE Bookstore Photo:

Nowadays, running an independent bookstore (独立书店) in China is considered foolish as the popularity of various handheld devices seem to be taking over the place of printed books. Moreover, rising property rents are forcing independent bookstores to think about their diminishing profit margins. The media have been speculating that independent bookstores will disappear in China in a few years. But is the situation so bad?

There is no doubt that Chinese people’s reading habits have changed dramatically since the dawn of Internet age in China in the 1990s, which brought about a great revolution of reading. People began to buy books or download electronic books from various websites. According to Jia Yi, editorial director of New Star Press, 60% of their books are sold online and the proportion keeps rising.

It cannot be denied that finding a book online saves much more time than looking around in a bookstore. The change has left independent bookstores in a difficult situation, and it’s time for them to think about whether and how they can move on with their business.

Mixed fortunes

Independent bookstores have experienced two rounds of life-and-death situations in China in the 21st century, according to Liu Suli, general manager of All Sages Books (万圣书园). The first period was 2000–2004, when 70% of them went bankrupt or started transforming their business mode. The second depression struck in 2009, when even popular independent bookstores, such as O2SUN (光合作用), couldn’t afford to stay in business.

However, some other independent bookstores are still making money and opening more branches in the current difficult market, such as SiSIPHE Bookstore (西西弗书店) and Today Bookstore (今日阅读书店). The experience of such bookstores sends the message that bookstores need to transform their old-fashioned business mode to overcome the challenge brought by e-commerce.

Sun Yuemo, editor-in-chief of China Publishing & Media Journal, mentioned that managers of the surviving independent bookstores basically have three characteristics. “First, they have a deep understanding of what culture is; second, they are professional at selecting books to meet the demands of different groups of customers; and third, they have their unique ways of marketing.”

Time for transformation

One-Way Street Bookstore Photo:

One of the most important features the surviving independent bookstores share is that they have conducted meticulous research in order to offer customers a range of new experiences and “soft” services besides the sale of books.

Managers of successful independent bookstores believe that bookstores are no longer places where customers just come to buy the books they like. Now most of them have a space where customers can sit down, read books, get something to drink or eat and talk to each other. They serve as places for socializing rather than simply doing business.

The Guizhou-based Today Bookstore opened two branches in 2013 and it is planning to open two more this year. Its general manager Dan Jie said, “We are opening a bookstore in a shopping mall in Shanghai this year. The bookstore will house a café, a restaurant, an art gallery and a public space. We need to change the past business mode so that we won’t die.”

In addition, some independent bookstores are developing an assortment of related products to increase their incomes. The One-Way Street Bookstore (单向街书店), located in Chaoyang Joy City (朝阳大悦城) in Beijing, sells products under their own brand name, such as pens, notebooks, ceramics, cloth bags and bookmarks. Its Manager Wu Yanping said, “These products really make customers remember us and help increase customers’ loyalty to our bookstore.”

Activities such as book-signing and lectures are becoming an indispensable part of the operation of an independent bookstore. Inviting the author of a newly released book to meet the readers is a good way to promote both the book and the bookstore. According to Wu Yanping from the One-Way Street Bookstore, they have held more than 600 salons in the past few years and won acclaim from both authors and readers. SiSYPHE Bookstore Deputy Manager Tian Bin said, “Customers don’t want to just buy books. They are inclined to interact with our bookstore. They are happy to see and do more things in our bookstore. This is critical to stabilizing our customer base.”

Building distinct advantages

Old Heavens Bookstore Photo:

Managers of most independent bookstores believe that every bookstore, like every person, should have its own personality. They cannot do everything in their limited space, so what they need to do is to focus on what they are good at and stay away from what they are not. Copying others won’t achieve anything.

Tian of SiSYPHE Bookstore said, “Our bookstores are in shopping malls, so we don’t choose technical or low-end books. We target at those who like fashion and shopping.”

Tu Fei, manager of Old Heavens Bookstore (旧天堂书店) in Shenzhen, used to be a singer in a rock band. His bookstore offers books on music and humanities. There is also a space in his bookstore where old discs are on sale. In addition, out of his interest in music, he gives music bands and independent musicians opportunities to perform in his bookstore on a regular basis, which attracts readers and music fans. “Your personality decides the personality of your bookstore. You should know both your strengths and your weaknesses. Avoid the latter and bring the former into full play,” he said.

Coping with online shops

Pangguan Bookstore Photo:

Books are often sold at great discounts online but they are sold at full price in many independent bookstores. This seems to put the bookstores in a more disadvantaged position, but some managers don’t look at it this way.

Wu Min, manager of Pangguan Bookstore (旁观书社) in Beijing’s 798 Art District, said, “We can never compete with online shops on price. We should provide customers with services and experiences the online shops cannot provide. The face-to-face communication between people can never be replaced by computer. Those who really love books don’t look for discounts.”

So, despite the challenges, many of the independent bookstore owners are optimistic about the future prospects. As BeePub (蜜蜂出版) General Manager Zhang Yehong said, “We are not worried about the future of independent bookstores because people who love books will eventually get back to the earliest form of reading.”

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