Portugal’s Livraria Lello is celebrated as one of the world’s most charming bookstores. Opened in 1906, it operates from a neo-Gothic building with a majestic stained-glass ceiling. The Art Deco interior features elegant woodcarvings, glowing lamps, and most strikingly, a plush crimson staircase. Believed to be the inspiration for the Flourish and Blotts bookshop in the Harry Potter novels, the store attracts as many as 5,000 visitors a day.
In 2015 Livraria Lello began to charge a €5 ($5.54) entrance fee, but the turnout remained heavy, bringing in over $8 million revenue in 2017.
It’s a reminder that the physical bookstore is far from dead, despite our more digitally-driven world. In China, where online shopping is a big part of everyday life, bricks-and-mortar bookstores are making a spectacular comeback. Over 4,000 new ones appeared last year, taking the total to 70,000, data from Meituan Dianping suggests. In contrast, ‘book-loving’ Britain saw just 16 new bookshops in 2019.
Many of the new bookstores in China are taking their inspiration from the Livraria Lello, albeit over a much bigger square footage. Meticulously designed, they are dazzling spectacles in their own right and created as crowd-pullers by malls and high street operators.
At Zodi Plaza, a skyscraper in Chongqing, the Zhongshuge Bookstore has become one of the must-see attractions in the southwestern city. In a double-height hall with soaring shelves and a towering staircase, the 1,400-square-metre store is reminiscent of the dreamscapes conjured up by Dutch graphic artist MC Escher. Its architect X+Living claims the design is supposed to pay homage to Chongqing’s mountainous terrain.
Drawn by the stunning décor, nearly 200,000 people visited Zhongshuge within the first 15 days of its opening last year, prompting crowd control measures.
Other outlets that enjoy celebrity status include Shanghai’s Duoyun Bookstore (known as “the Books above the Clouds” because it sits on the 52nd floor of the Shanghai Tower, currently the world’s second tallest skyscraper) and the three-storey PageOne at Beijing’s Qianmen, which is open around the clock and features a wall of books spanning six metres in height and 50 metres in width.
The sudden burst of bookstore openings in China is also a result of a government push. According to a state-backed survey last year, Chinese adults got through an average of almost eight books in 2018, but three of them were in a digital format. The spread of the online culture means that more people are switching to digital content in general.
But the bigger cities are also being encouraged to integrate more traditional booksellers into their urban fabric. Capital city Beijing, for instance, improved its subsidies to the industry by 50% to Rmb100 million ($14.41 million) last year in addition to tax cuts for book retailers and wholesalers. The move was a boon for the city’s 1,300 bookstores, according to the Beijing News, with 143 of them seeing their rental costs substantially reduced. The objective? To have a local bookstore in reach of every 8,000 residents.
But what was meant to foster a wider culture of reading has also been criticised for spawning a less welcome practice: thousands of netizens that turn up at the most dramatic of the bookstores to pose for photos (to be posted online) or socialise over coffee rather than thumb through the literature.
“Are bookstores still conducive to reading, rumination and illumination? Can they still rely on selling books as their main business?” asked China Daily in response.
Other newspapers agreed that the biggest and best-designed of the new stores are more likely to be draws for tourists and those wanting to look trendy on their WeChat or Sina Weibo accounts. Most customers leave without buying a single book, but they have stocked up with plenty of photos proving that they’ve visited.
Like Livraria Lello, perhaps the busiest of the new bookstores should start charging entrance fees, given that so many of those stalking the shelves don’t seem to be bookworms.
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