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.