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  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 3:44pm
NewsHong Kong

Eslite's novel idea loses its lustre, one year on

Tawian bookstore chain Eslite has struggled to meet the expectations of HK fans since it opened to much acclaim

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 August, 2013, 12:36pm

Taiwanese bookstore chain Eslite has a reputation for much more than just selling books.

When it made the decision to open a shop in Causeway Bay a year ago, there were high hopes it would recreate the round-the-clock, laid-back atmosphere of its Taipei megastore.

It was also expected it would encourage cultural exchanges and promote reading.

So many people have been disappointed to see the Hong Kong outlet crammed with noisy visitors. Eslite also stopped opening for 24 hours on certain days not long after it started business.

Some authors, including famed novelist Chan Koon-chung, have said that the store is not localised enough - it seems to stay aloof in local debates. They also complain it offers only a limited range of Hong Kong-published titles.

Ahead of the store's first anniversary tomorrow, operating director Catherine Wang Po-chi said she was keen to hear public feedback but it was hard to please everyone.

"Many people say it's crowded in our shop. But Hong Kong is a crowded place," she said, adding that Eslite tried to be a miniature of society and adapt to local conditions.

It dropped 24-hour openings because of low demand, she said.

Unlike most of the chain's Taiwanese customers who were freelance workers or ran their own shops, most people in Hong Kong had to get up early to get to their offices and therefore could not read until dawn, Wang said.

She is not convinced that Eslite has been aloof.

It had hosted 160 talks in the store, of which 70 per cent involved local authors or groups talking about topics ranging from open markets and conservancy to fine arts.

As to the number of locally published books the store carries, Wang said the number would remain low because there were fewer published in the city than in Taiwan: Hong Kong published 9,000 titles a year, compared with 40,000 in Taiwan.

When choosing what books to offer, content, not origin, took precedence.

Wang said it was hard to label the store "local" or "Taiwanese" as it was part of the global mix. Hongkongers were continually faced with figuring out the essence of the "HK identity".

Wang said openness and diversity were cornerstones of the city. "You wouldn't point your fingers at [Japanese clothing brand] Uniqlo and say it's not localised enough," she observed.

Wang said the city had its fair share of regular readers. Eslite's customers returned every six weeks or so, buying an average of about two books each time. They were mature readers, showing an appetite for both popular reads and niche titles. Literature constituted 13 per cent of sales.

The shop does not intend making significant changes to what it offers. Books, which take up 80 per cent of the space, will continue to dominate, with sales almost covering operating costs.

A big task will be finding suitable locations for new branches beyond Hong Kong Island. Given the high rents, it will be a difficult, and Wang said she couldn't guarantee the chain would expand in the next couple of years.

Jimmy Pang Chi-ming, head of publisher Sub-Culture, acknowledged that Eslite had brought competition and thus improvements to local bookshops, especially in store designs and product offerings.

"For example, Joint Publishing's Yuen Long store now offers coffee," he said.

But Eslite's stringent rules and management style, which stresses obedience, has soured its relationship with local publishers and staff. Pang said one example was fining publishers for delayed deliveries, which was uncommon in the local book circle.

He said it remained a big challenge to make weekly talks a success, given there were not many popular local cultural leaders.

Pang would like Eslite to bring more alternative and politically sensitive views to Hong Kong in the form of book imports and guests.

While the bookstore has promised to comply with local laws when it opens its first outlet in Suzhou , Pang said the brand should remain committed to freedom of expression. "As a cultural leader, you cannot shy away from such responsibilities," he said.



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This article is now closed to comments

I'm an avid reader, book buyer and Page One fan. I eagerly awaited the opening of Eslite but was sorely disappointed when they first opened.
There are 2 deal breakers for me:
1) It is EXTREMELY crowded, at least 100 times more crowded than any Page One store. Not surprising when the damn shopping mall escalators run through the store constantly bringing in hundreds, if not thousands, of foot traffic, that has no intention of shopping in the store. It's a terrible place to be browsing through books, akin to book shopping in Mong Kok's Ladies Night Market.
2) I only speak English and like to browse through English books. Whereas, Page One separates their English and Chinese book sections, Eslite merges both English and Chinese books together, making for tedious and inconvenient browsing.
The design and layout of the store is inherently flawed which may explain why Page One does well yet Eslite has failed to resonate with book lovers in HK.
After reading this article and listening to the Eslite's operating director's defensive attitude and excuses to pretty much every single customer feedback, I have to agree with her that expansion is definitely not in their plans. An inevitable demise and exit from HK's book scene is probably much more likely.
Don't let the door hit you on the way out.
I am also an avid book reader who mainly purchases either at Page One or Dymocks IfC. Really looked forward to this Eslite but no matter how many times I go, I can't help but sigh at the confusing layout, constant noise from ppl just giggling and frolicking thru, and the food odor from upstairs or queus in front of the tea house that block passage making the whole experience tiresome. My biggest complaint is the mix match with English and Chinese books which make it incredibly confusing for non Chinese readers like myself, and having to navigate those differing language sections while trying to find specific genres or categories at the same time gives me twice the headache. The people in charge should really try to untangle this web because Page One is a LOT better, and I would rather walk there in the sweltering heat to purchase the book AND have the quiet experience even if it means I have to come back to Hysan for the food court. Silly, yah, but Ms Wang, you need to figure out why ppl like me are doing this instead of making comparisons with Uniglo. You obviously seem to be lacking something key here and in Donald Trump's words, I would say, You're fired!
The drop in editing standard at SCMP is appalling! Two ironic examples from this article about bookstore and literacy..... "The shop does not intend making significant changes...." and "....it will be a difficult....."
Anything wrong with your first 'example'?
sack the b_itch


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