Help your shelf

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 July, 2009, 12:00am

If you're a voracious reader who ploughs through several books each week, it doesn't take long before they pile up. That is a predicament PR consultant and entertainment business veteran Anders Nelsson found himself in earlier this year.

'I tend to read two or three books at a time - a trashy novel for when my mind is zonked out, and a historical novel,' he says. 'It seemed very wasteful to have so many books lying around, so I'd just pass them to friends and ask them to pass them on.'

But Nelsson found he couldn't give them away fast enough and began to look for other ways of disposing of books he no longer wanted. He found his solution in the Book Attic.

A second-hand bookshop specialising in English-language titles, the Book Attic occupies a first-floor space in Wan Chai, but it's nothing like the dusty jumble of many second-hand stores. The shop is a bright, neatly laid-out space that invites customers to browse, with a small reading area and complimentary tea for people with time for a more leisurely look.

'I don't enjoy going to messy bookshops,' says owner Jennifer Li Sui-wan. 'They're dusty, smelly and disorganised. I just want to get what I want and leave.

'I want my shop to be like an oasis, a place where people can relax their minds even if it's just for a few minutes. This is the environment I like to be in when I read a book.

'When I was a kid it was so different. If I stayed to read and not buy the books, owners would tell me to get out. I don't want to do that to my fellow book lovers.'

The shop stocks about 2,000 English-language books in almost perfect condition, with popular paperbacks priced at HK$30 to HK$50 and children's books at about HK$5 - comparable with prices in most local used-book stores.

A former footwear consultant, Li used to travel often to cities on the mainland and Taiwan, where she found a thriving second-hand books scene.

'They all have very interesting used-book shops that feel more like regular shops,' she says. 'It was a pity that a city like Hong Kong didn't have much of a used-book culture.'

So when the consultancy business declined, she left and worked briefly in various bookstores before starting her used-book business about year ago.

Rather than pay cash for used titles, Li runs her shop like a club, giving members store credit for books they trade in.

Many book lovers who can't bear the idea of books being thrown out like rubbish donate unwanted material to charities or public libraries.

For physiotherapist Brian Yeung Wing-choi, establishments such as Li's open up different genres. He would soon run out of shelf space if he kept buying new books, he says, but trading in allows him to keep numbers in check while making it cheaper to delve into new material.

With more eco-conscious readers, used books have the added attraction of helping cut the use of resources such as trees, water and energy and to reduce pressure on the city's landfills.

'I feel almost cleansed at times when I give a big bag away, especially when I know it's not going into a landfill but to a book lover,' says Nelsson.

Chan Kai-yung, who has run the Collectables second-hand bookshop in Central for about 17 years, has seen a change in his clientele. In the past, about 80 per cent were expatriates, but now there's an even number of expat and local customers.

His clientele has become slightly older, too, but that may be because he now takes mostly hardcover and non-fiction titles, including works of history and biographies. Paperback fiction doesn't sell as well, Chan says.

At the Book Attic, the selection of titles is relatively small, but then Li is selective about the material she accepts. Books that don't meet her standards are donated to charities.

'Popular or general fiction books have to be in near-new condition, although it also depends on the context and author. I'll consider a book if it's hard to find,' she says.

Li also publishes a meticulously maintained online inventory of her stock along with wish lists of members, giving everyone an indication of what's sought after.

At the other end of the spectrum, Flow is more likely to appeal to bargain hunters. Occupying a small space next to the Mid-Levels escalator, the 12-year-old shop is packed to the ceiling with books in varying condition. Although owner Surdham Lam Sum has shelved them by genre, he doesn't keep an inventory so book lovers must rummage around.

But in between piles of dictionaries and expos?s on the Nancy Kissel case, customers can find some solid deals. For instance, an illustrated hardback copy of The Da Vinci Code can be had for HK$118, even though it's listed as out of stock on and retails at other bookshops for almost HK$300.

'I think there are about 5,000 books on the shelves here, but I have 10 times more in a warehouse,' Lam says. 'It's hard to believe I started with fewer than 1,000 books.'

Lam pays for used books on credit or in cash and gets a return of 5 to 10 per cent on the cover price, although that varies with demand. Earnings can be as high as 20 per cent on popular titles such as Stephanie Meyer's Twilight - a book that 'comes in at 10am and is sold by 2pm'.

Still, shop owners such as Lam and Li aren't in the business entirely for the money. Besides promoting an interest in reading, Li is keen to raise awareness of conservation and environmental issues and organises occasional talks at her shop on topics such as heritage preservation.

Lam's previous job as an education officer at an organic farm has also influenced his approach.

'During that time I became more concerned with the bigger picture of things. That might be one of the experiences that directed me [to open a used-book store] And personally, I like books ... a lot,' he says.

Lam is an advocate of book crossing, which involves recycling books through swaps or leaving them in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then repeat the process, and has circulated some of his stock that way.

'I like to tell my customers that I get my income in two ways. One is money, of course. But the other is conversation,' he says. 'I talk to people from all walks of life every day and the daily conversations inspire me.'

Besides, he says, 'most people who bring books to our shop don't do it for the money. They're more caring for the environment. They'd rather give the book to someone than throw it away.'