Starting a different chapter
You'll often hear people in Hong Kong, especially those who can't read Chinese, complain about the supposed lack of interesting bookshops in the city. In reality, there's quite a selection of rare, antiquarian, specialist and second-hand booksellers around town - you just have to know where to look.
They're fed by a small but growing market in Hong Kong for rare, old and expensive books, among collectors and people looking for unusual gifts, while several specialist bookshops are flourishing, especially those that focus on Hong Kong and the mainland - both their history and their current affairs.
Meanwhile, there's an increasing acceptance of second-hand books, say bookshop owners - but running a low-margin business like that in a city with sky-high rents is a tough ask. Still, there are several that bravely soldier on, providing a valued place to read, browse and hang out as well as to buy.
Here are our picks of the city's most interesting bookstores - ones where the books don't come in an annoying cellophane wrapping.
Hong Kong Reader
One of the city's more high-minded bookstores, Hong Kong Reader is a true labour of love. Established in 2007 by three friends who had studied philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, it focused initially on books about philosophy; after talking to customers, that broadened to a range of academic and cultural subjects.
With its mixture of Chinese and English books, co-owner Daniel Lee says the shop's biggest sellers these days are books about Hong Kong current affairs and society, with an increasing number of its overwhelmingly young clientele interested in social activism. 'After the 2008 financial crisis, many people started to rethink the social situation, especially in regard to capitalism and the environment.'
The original idea wasn't even to launch a bookstore, says Lee. 'We just wanted to create a place where people could think about academic topics and discuss them - a community. We thought of doing a coffee shop but that didn't feel right for Hong Kong, so we decided on a bookstore.'
In fact, none of the partners had any previous experience of retail, let alone specifically of book retail. 'We asked lots of people, and a lot of them were quite negative about the idea, but we did it anyway,' says Lee.
OK, so it's not technically a shop, but with books costing up to HK$300,000, Bondi Books is a good place to start if you're looking for something really special. An appointment-only book dealer based in the unlikely location of Chai Wan, Bondi Books focuses on photography, art and literature first editions.
Owner Josh Carey says he has between 750 and 800 books catalogued, with many more in stock, with an average price of about HK$4,000-HK$5,000, and ranging up to that HK$300,000 book, a signed original first edition of Oscar Wilde's Salome. He adds, slightly ruefully, that he's had it for a couple of years now. Clearly it's the thrill of the chase that excites him most. 'I'm a book hunter - I get very excited when I find a book,' he says. 'When I sell it, it means I have to search for a new one, and that also excites me.'
Carey originally established Bondi Books when he was living in Tokyo in 2003, after finding that there was a shortage of used English-language bookshops. Quickly realising that low-cost used paperbacks weren't the best way to make a living, he gradually narrowed down his field of expertise to the current one.
Carey relocated to Hong Kong after the 2011 Japan earthquake, and opened for business here in June this year. He says that so far, Japan has a larger, more knowledgeable collector base than Hong Kong, particularly when it comes to foreign books. 'Many people in Hong Kong are not yet collecting books.'
The Book Attic
Another recent relocator, The Book Attic hasn't had to move quite as far as Bondi: from Amoy Street, Wan Chai, where it was established in 2008, to SoHo. Still, the move - which was prompted, as these things so often are, by its previous landlord declining last year to renew the lease - highlights the challenging economics of running a second-hand bookshop in Hong Kong.
A general second-hand bookshop, with a focus on fiction, that also hosts regular literary events, The Book Attic is owned by Jennifer Li. An avid frequenter of second-hand bookshops since she can remember, she worked for a textile manufacturing company and as a software developer before following her passion and setting up the shop.
The new location, she says, is a lot quieter than the old one, and also suffers from a lack of parking, making it difficult for people to bring used books. English-language books aren't as popular now as before the handover, something she attributes to a shrinking expatriate customer base and declining English standards among Hongkongers.
Other issues have been less predictable. 'It's a residential area, and some older people living here are superstitious, and don't like having the books in their building,' says Li, who has even had to contend with visits from the police, after a neighbour alleged that her shop jeopardised the security of the building.
Flow variously refers to itself as a community bookshop and an organic bookshop. While paper is certainly organic, that latter name is more an attempt to get across a general vibe of sustainability, harmony and niceness.
Owner Surdham Lam, previously an education officer on an organic farm, is evidently in the business for environmental reasons at least as much as literary ones. 'Once a friend introduced the idea of a second-hand bookshop, I was immediately interested, because it was about how to make the best use of natural resources,' he says.
Hong Kong's longest-serving used English-language bookshop, Flow opened in 1997. Its stock is half fiction and half non-fiction, which makes up most of its turnover, followed by books about Hong Kong and travel books. The shop has moved twice, the last time a year ago - when rent went up by 50 per cent. Paying the rent is the most difficult part of running the business, says Lam. He's optimistic, though. 'There's been a growth in the acceptance of used books, especially among local people,' he says, adding that the shop is receiving more and more donations. 'People like the idea of second-hand books, and people are generous.'
7/F, 29 Hollywood Road, Central. Tel: 2964 9483
Combining two specialist areas, this is both a rare and antiquarian bookshop and one with a specialist focus. Set up nine years ago by owner Yves Azemar, the shop specialises in books from and about Asian countries, with a particular focus on the former French colonies of Indochina, but with a big range of unusual titles about other countries including China and Thailand. It also sells other material related to those countries, including prints, photographs and postcards.
With a stock of more than 4,000 books, the subjects include everything from travel and history to linguistics and archaeology. While most of its stock isn't quite in the price range of some antiquarian booksellers, it does hold some very specialised and out-of-print titles, with rare books about China fetching in excess of HK$20,000.
A spokesperson says that the shop has become a mecca for collectors who are interested in Asian culture - and, increasingly, these people are actually from the countries in question, in particular the mainland.
1/F, 89 Hollywood Road, Central. Tel: 2854 2853
Lok Man Rare Books
'I'm not even sure if it's a shop,' says Lok Man Rare Books owner Lorence Johnston. Well, a physical premises people can walk into off the street definitely is but what Johnston means is that Lok Man Rare Books is as much a consultancy as a retailer, with regular clients. He says he often buys books, many of them rare first editions, with a particular person in mind.
Fiction, travel, history and sports are some of the most popular subjects among his customers, adds Johnston, as well as books about China, some dating back to the 17th century (he also has books about wine from as far back as the 15th century).
Among his prized possessions are first editions of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel Casino Royale and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (the latter in, of all things, an asbestos binding).
Johnston, who has worked in a variety of industries, including finance, says that he set up the shop because 'I couldn't find anywhere to buy something special in Hong Kong, outside the typical luxury brands - something of personal value, where the people running the shop had a personal interest. The beauty of this business is that you get a broad-based clientele. There are a large number of people here who are looking for special gifts.'
And finally, if it's a big, mainstream bookshop you want, this is as good a bet as any. The emphasis here, by the standards of Hong Kong retail spaces at least, is on the 'big' bit: the Hong Kong flagship of the Singaporean chain, which also has outlets in Taiwan, Thailand and on the mainland, it covers more than 9,000 sq ft, contains more than 120,000 books - as well as gifts, magazines and other lifestyle-related gizmos - and attracts about 2,000 customers a day.
Located on the ninth floor of Times Square since moving from the mega-mall's basement in 2004, Page One is a generalist shop, but with a focus on art and design books, although a spokesperson says children's books are its best-sellers. 'We want to offer the average reader a wide range of books - books outside of what they normally read and expect,' she adds. 'You will always find something unique, books which no other store will carry or people might not know but will be interested in.'
There are also Page One branches at Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong and Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui as well as several small outlets at Chek Lap Kok airport's departure area.