A book lover's fairy tale in the making
The opening of the Fangsuo 'bookshop' in Guangzhou's most upmarket shopping mall last month was a landmark event in a city often decried as a cultural desert and a shot in the arm for the mainland's beleaguered book retailers.
Diehard fans of the printed word hope it will bolster the trade in Guangzhou, a goal shared by the store's creators.
Turning the conventional idea of browsing the shelves on its head, the 1,800 square metre store feels more like a lifestyle hub, devoting two-thirds of its floor space to clothing, kitchenware, preppy stationery and a cafe that serves black coffee at 50 yuan (HK$61) a cup. Its neighbours include Louis Vuitton, Hermes and many other luxury brands.
But many worry that even with the lifestyle concept, it will still prove hard for a bookshop to survive in Guangzhou in the digital era.
The well-known Sanlian Bookstore chain has closed its three shops in Guangzhou since July last year, while two other established, privately owned shops, Fengrusong in Beijing and Jifeng's branch at Raffles City in central Shanghai, shut down in the middle of this year.
The mainland's biggest private bookshop chain, Apodon, is also struggling to keep its head above water.
So what makes Fangsuo's creators believe they can be an exception?
Seven visits to the store over three weeks showed a strong flow of customers throughout the day, except for the first two hours in the morning.
The coffee's expensive but it is brewed from the best beans from Africa, South America and Yunnan, carefully chosen by a Taiwanese coffee master.
But compared with pans that go for 1,500 yuan each and clothes costing several thousand yuan, coffee and books contribute just a fraction of the store's revenue.
Shuching Hsu, a key member of the Fangsuo team, said owner Mao Jihong, a 44-year-old Hunanese fashion designer who has been in Guangdong for two decades and started his successful clothing business there, wanted to make it a place where people could 'meet, talk and think ... not just a bookshop'.
'From the very beginning, Mao and the designers intended to make the store different [from any other bookshops], offering not only books but also a sense of life,' she said.
Fangsuo's designers are selling an atmosphere created by good books, good coffee, well-designed products and plenty of space. People can sit around tables in the middle of the store, read books as they sip coffee and watch other bookworms explore the shelves.
'People can get some of the feeling of being in a public square, where, in the past, people met and talked about their lives,' Hsu said.
She used to work in Taiwan's media and culture industry and now takes care of event management for Fangsuo. They have held 15 seminars since late last month, featuring prominent writers, poets and designers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.
The events attract readers wanting to meet their idols. Arrive an hour in advance if you want to be assured of one of the 100 seats.
Operations director Jaimy Tan said Guangzhou residents had always been consumers of culture.
'Mao loves Cantonese folk culture because he finds that the locals have been preserving a lot of tradition,' she said. 'The only problem is that unlike Beijing or Shanghai, Guangdong first needs more professionals to tap those needs.'
Tan was invited to join Fangsuo in October last year, right after she finished her job as deputy curator of Taiwan's Aurora Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai. In the early and mid-1990s, she worked for Taiwan's Eslite Bookstore.
Both Tan and Hsu said Fangsuo was not another Eslite, although most of its managers were familiar with the success of Taiwan's largest bookshop chain. With decades of experience in book retailing, publishing and the media, Fangsuo's cross-strait team is seeking to give it a broader vision.
With that in mind, the Fangsuo endeavour shows us how broad concepts such as 'culture' and 'cultural needs' can be narrowed down to tangible stuff and better living: books by great writers, aromatic coffee, and an open place conducive to free thinking and communication. As the year draws to a close, why not leave work behind for a while, visit your favourite bookshop, pick up a book you've been wanting to lay your hands on and enjoy it?