Chen Jun perches on a sofa at Hong Kong Reader, an independent bookshop in Mong Kok, where he and a group of like-minded book lovers have been enjoying one of their regular discussions. This week their talk was on the philosophies of late French thinker Jacques Derrida, and was hosted by University of Hong Kong academic Fong Ho-yin. The group previously discussed cultural critic Ma Kwok-ming's series on German philosopher Walter Benjamin and historian Arif Dirlik's talk on global modernity. Chen is delighted by the breadth and depth of the conversation. 'It's the kind of stimulation that I won't find in the workplace,' says the 28-year-old businessman. He became a regular at the bookshop soon after it opened last May on the seventh floor of an old building, and enjoys exchanging views with people of different backgrounds. 'Some are of my age, but there are also students and retirees,' Chen says. 'Their views inspire me to have different perspectives on life.' The cosy 800 sq ft store sells mainly English-language titles on philosophy, humanities and social science, and organises equally highbrow debates in its cafe corner on ideas raised in the books. 'We want to make our bookstore a gathering place where people can share their book endeavours, forge bonds and create a community,' says owner Daniel Lee Dat-ning, who opened Hong Kong Reader with two fellow philosophy graduates from the Chinese University. 'It's also a good way to attract potential customers and anchor existing ones.' Lee, 26, is among a group of young entrepreneurs trying to build up their bookshop as literary salons, and his efforts seem to be taking root. Most of the clientele at Hong Kong Reader are students and academics drawn to its specialist titles, but laymen such as Chen enjoy the bond of sharing ideas and discussing their reading. 'I might not know all the participants by name, but there's a sense of affinity because we share the same interest,' says Chen. 'We're not the type of friends who will hang out in bars and karaoke lounges together, but we have meaningful conversations.' Testo Bookstore in Causeway Bay shares Hong Kong Reader's ambitions to turn its space into a literary salon for customers. Run by three bloggers, the 600 sq ft store stocks Chinese-language titles on culture, history and philosophy. Since opening in October, the shop has organised activities such as a book talk by author Shum Long-tin and a discussion about the works of modern romantic poet Dai Wangshu. Testo manager Dasabala Lam Kwan-wong, 24, says he plans to organise more talks on social issues to attract like-minded customers. Independent bookshops have long been a magnet for intellectuals seeking rare reading matter. Most cluster in the upper levels of older buildings in Mong Kok, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, where rents are lower. Commonly referred to as 'upstairs bookshops', the majority sold Taiwan-published translations of overseas books during the 1980s and 90s. The shops not only offered considerably lower prices, the owners' knack for sourcing high-quality titles also met the needs of a niche intellectual clientele. Desmond Chui Chun-pong, the author of a bookshops guide, estimates that there are more than 60 such outlets in Hong Kong. 'Although many well-established shops have shut down because of the deteriorating reading culture, many newcomers are joining forces,' Chui says. 'There're also an increasing number of stores selling titles in simplified Chinese characters and religious books.' The convenience of online ordering has also changed many readers' buying habits, says cultural critic Ma Ka-fai. The range of literature in independent stores is no longer enough to satisfy his voracious reading appetite, and Ma has found a wider selection of titles in online stores and Shenzhen Book City. Online shops remove the hassle of carrying an armful of books home, Ma says. 'Now I purchase through mainland online bookstores such as Dang Dang, which delivers books directly to my home,' he says. But Ma admits independent bookshops provide a unique atmosphere. 'Young people are drawn by the cosy environment where they can absorb knowledge from books selected by the owners,' he says. 'Each independent bookstore has its own personality that chain stores lack.' Chen also values how independent owners provide personal evaluations of recommended releases. 'Their commentaries are original,' he says. 'They're not copied from Amazon. I appreciate their labour of love.' Such is the bond between booksellers, readers and authors that about 100 suppliers and customers-turned-friends attended the memorial service for Green Text bookstore owner Law Chi-wah. Some customers play active roles in their stores. Lee cites how Fong became a regular speaker after joining its reading group. 'We invited him to give some talks related to his research topic,' Lee says. 'Since then he has offered a talk every month.' At Testo, another customer organised a discussion on the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier. 'I'm not a social activist, but I wanted to share my fond memories of the pier with other people,' says fung shui consultant Alan Yu Chi-lop. 'Independent bookstores offer an avenue to share my views.' James Chong Kwok-tung is a pioneer in the drive to liven up independent bookshops through linked activity. His Mackie Study outlets specialise in titles related to the performing arts, and he has attracted a devoted following by organising an exhaustive lineup of events, ranging from a talk on the work of Russian dance legend Vaslaw Nijinsky to a concert featuring Taiwanese singer-songwriter Summer Lei Guang-xia at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. 'Our books define the type of customers. Since we sell books related to the arts, we draw people who enjoy watching live performances too,' Chong says. 'People who don't know about my bookstores might be attracted by the events. Organising events give indie bookstores like mine more exposure.' He adds: 'We can't sell books as traditional bookstores did 10 years ago. We have to repackage reading as a stylish lifestyle in line with cool music and arts performances.' As part of the lifestyle package, Chong recently opened a cafe across the road from his bookstore in Yun Ping Road, Causeway Bay. The cafe, employing waiters who used to be his bookstore customers, features a shelf where customers can practise bookcrossing - releasing and picking up books for free. 'Hong Kong's reading culture might be waning, but we still have ways to sustain a niche market,' he says.