And Finally

Turning the page?

Why an iconic bookstore is struggling to survive

If only there were more like her

“France has long believed that a book is not just a business,” lawmaker Hervé Gaymard told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a cultural identity.”

Worried that the nation’s 3,000 independent bookshops will face closure as a result of the onslaught of Amazon and its encouragement of e-books, the French government is on the verge of legislation to protect the bricks-and-mortar practioners.

In a proposed new law, it will soon be illegal to discount e-books. The current pricing practice threatens smaller bookstores that sell the hard copy equivalent (aka the ‘paperback’ version).

But the demise of cherished bookshops does not just worry the French; it’s also worrying the Chinese.

The closure of a Guangzhou book retailing chain sent a warning signal. The latest worry is whether an iconic bookshop in Beijing can survive.

“If only Sanlian Taofen Book Centre were a simple bookstore, it’s closure would not make people anxious and full of worry,” reports CBN Weekly. “But it is not. It is Beijing’s cultural landmark: the spiritual home in the eyes of scholars from Beijing and beyond.”

According to the newspaper, sales at Sanlian Taofen have been on a downward spiral – its sales last year fell 50% to Rmb10 million.

CBN notes that many customers now come to the store to browse the books, before buying them on websites Danddang and Joyo Amazon (see WiC63) where they are cheaper.

Younger customers are also reading more online or on their mobile phones, further hampering sales, says Taofen cashier Kong Lingqin. CBN reports that Kong is seeing shorter and shorter queues at the checkout each day.

Fortunately Sanlian Taofen is backed by China Publishing Group, which owns the building and has cut the store’s rent to a negligible sum.

That gives it a little breathing pace. However, its owner is not prepared to tolerate red ink forever.

Accordingly, it has brought in Zhai Dafang to turn things around. The previous general manager of Chung Hwa Books in Hong Kong has come to Beijing to dole out some retail therapy. He has cut the number of staff from 79 to 32. But in order to keep the most motivated people, he told everyone they will compete for fewer jobs, but those who stay will see their pay rise by a third.

The store’s warehouse and book inventory were reduced, while the more academic titles got moved to the basement – with more art and design books put in their place.

To enhance cashflow, the second floor was rented to a Taiwanese entrepreneur who pays Rmb1 million in rent. He has turned the space into a coffee shop that also sells travel books.

Will Zhai’s plan work; or is the bookshop ultimately doomed?

CBN isn’t overly-optimistic. On a Sunday afternoon it counted just seven people using the checkout between 3 and 4pm.


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