It's a regular Tuesday night. On the second floor of a commercial building at Dunhua South Road in Taipei, readers are lost in their books while more than two dozen people line up at the cash counter to pay for the books. And more people are filing into the 24-hour bookstore. Who would think it's already 10? Li Mingxia is one of the late-night visitors. Li came to Taiwan on an eight-day package tour with her husband and friends, their first visit to the island. She has bought a basket of books, all biographies of modern Chinese leaders not available on the mainland such as those on Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo. Li is thrilled with her find. Eslite, which opened its first store in March 1989, is now the biggest bookstore chain in Taiwan. It has 39 stores across the island. With a collection of 250,000 titles and 2.7 million copies of Chinese-language books and a reader-friendly atmosphere - soothing music, cosy sofas, arrangements to sit on the floor and read as long as the store is open, convenient locations - the chain is a hub of intellectual life in Taiwan and a temple for Chinese intellectuals. Li is not the only pilgrim from Beijing tonight. A young couple, who prefer to be called Mr and Mrs Huang, take turn to pose for photos at the new-release section. Music teacher Jenny Hui, from Hong Kong, says she likes shopping at Eslite for reference books on classical music because she cannot find them in Hong Kong. Cashing in on this popularity among Chinese intellectuals, the company plans to open stores in Hong Kong and on the mainland next. The expansion plan was unveiled even as Barnes & Noble, the largest bookstore chain in the United States, announced that it was putting itself up for sale as digital books are eclipsing the market for print. In a mainland survey, 91 per cent of readers said they would not buy printed books if they could read them in digital form. In the face of strong competition from the Internet and rocketing shop rents, nearly half of the mainland's private bookstores have closed in the past 10 years. Eslite's expansion plan is centred on increasing Taiwan's cultural influence, says Mercy Wu, Eslite's vice-chairwoman. 'We have many retail giants in Taiwan but none of them is indigenous. Only Eslite is 100 per cent Taiwanese. We want to spread our cultural influence,' she said. Daughter and heir of the company's founder Robert Wu, Mercy - born in 1978 - joined the company as a special assistant to her father in 2004. Dressed in an ivory-coloured chiffon blouse, she has no make-up and enunciates her ideas slowly with a soft voice. Fittingly, perhaps, for someone who runs a bookstore chain, she comes across more as an intellectual than the scion of a business family. After more than 20 years, the bookstore, with a focus on art and humanities titles, has already transformed into a department store operator that offers consumers the experience of a chic world of books, gastronomy, finely designed stationery and accessories. It also leases out spaces to multinationals, including Starbucks and Agnes b. Opened in 2005, the flagship store near Taipei 101 is a classic example of Eslite's current business model. The seven-storey mall has a food court selling inexpensive gourmet and another floor for more stylish restaurants. Then it has booths and shops selling fashion accessories. And, it has a bookstore - with a substantial section on children's literature - an auditorium and an art gallery. But Eslite also runs two malls targeted at teenagers in central Taipei where it sells hip consumer products. The business has been going so well that three years ago developers invited the bookstore chain to operate shopping malls for them. Writer and cultural commentator Leung Man-to is unimpressed by the transformation, however. 'By buying and selling books alone, it can't survive. But it has become too commercial, it even charges publishers an entrance fee,' he says. As Eslite is a major force in shaping reading tastes and habits, it wields considerable clout over publishers, Leung adds. Wu insists the transformation is essential for the chain's survival because, as Leung points out, the book trade alone will not keep it going. It is also a business model aimed at countering the impact of the digital revolution on traditional bookstores. Eslite was in the red for its first 15 years. The first profit came in 2004. It is now planning to list next year and will open a hotel in 2013. Wu stresses all these moves are in line with its philosophy of being a platform connecting people to culture. 'In the past, books were the major way for people to acquire knowledge. Now, book is only one of the many ways. Then there are plenty of activities luring people away from reading. For a traditional bookstore to survive, we have to have activities to bring people back to the bookstores. Internet bookstores are not a threat to us but we are still working on how to counter the impact of digital books.' New initiatives will be launched next year aimed at connecting reading devices with the bookstore. 'They will be able to see clearly what activities the stores are organising and they can also find out which of their friends are at the stores,' Wu says. Hong Kong is likely to be Eslite's first store outside Taiwan, with the first store in Hong Kong slated for 2012. After nearly a decade of searching for the right location with affordable rent, the company is negotiating with various developers with a goal of opening three stores in Hong Kong - in Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. It is looking at retail spaces of at least 30,000 sq ft. The one in Causeway Bay will be modelled on the Dunhua Road branch with a round-the-clock operation. Wu believes there will be no problems regarding censorship or book selection in Hong Kong. 'There are books we are not allowed to sell on the mainland, but Hong Kong is more liberal. We will sell everything unless the Hong Kong government says we are not allowed to do so.' Meanwhile, after relentlessly pursuing Eslite to come to Suzhou, the ancient garden city in the Yangtze River Delta will be home to the first Eslite store on the mainland. It will open in the Suzhou Industrial Zone in 2014. The company also plans to open two stores in Nanjing and two in Shanghai. It also has Beijing in its sights. The chain will team up with local partners to buy and develop land. Part of the development will be taken up by bookstores and shopping malls while the rest will be commercial buildings. The Taiwanese company will have full control over the bookstore and mall business. 'When I first joined the company, I didn't think we needed to expand. I thought we are doing very well; we didn't need much profit and could happily stick to the existing model. Gradually I realised that in the business world, not progressing means retreating,' Wu says.