Why Chengdu bookseller finds bringing people back to reading an uphill struggle
Fu Tianbin says even his five-year-old son prefers videos to picture books
Bookseller Fu Tianbin is finding it increasingly difficult to draw young Chinese back to reading books and away from the world of online entertainment.
China is now home to 751 million internet users, a fifth of the world’s total, but the number of books read by the average adult each year has fallen to about five, and most of those are lightweight, leisure titles.
Fu, 45, runs a second-hand book shop in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. He said he could not help but get frustrated when even his five-year-old son preferred Octonauts videos to picture books.
“It’s easy to give something up, but the formation of habit is a long process,” he said.
Books are an important part of his life in a fast-changing world.
“A good book can excite me for many days,” he said. “It brings me pleasure and lifts the state of my life.”
For the past 20 years, his spiritual home has been the Maobian Bookstore, now located in an inconspicuous residential neighbourhood in central Chengdu. The 130 square metre shop was named for selling Maobian, deckle-edged (rough-cut) books that have been a status symbol in Europe since the 19th century. They were first introduced into China by Lu Xun, a great modern Chinese writer, 100 years ago.
The niche trade started in a small city in Hubei province in 1998 when Fu worked at a local branch of Xinhua Bookstore, the country’s largest distributor, and was relocated to Chengdu two years later.
The initial idea was to serve a small group of readers interested in deckle-edged books and build a communication platform, but it grew into a personal interest focused on enjoying the pleasure of reading and thinking.
“When I started the business, it was solely for communication and exchanges among readers of the same taste … but now the market has become too commercialised,” Fu said. “Some started to print them in bulk for profit. The [reading] environment no longer exists.”
Deckle-edged books have become hot collectibles in China because of their limited print runs. However, soaring prices are scaring away many book enthusiasts.
Fu still keeps nearly 2,000 copies of deckle-edged books, including some rare editions by modern writers such as Bing Xin, Feng Xuefeng and Zhou Zuoren, and has also collected thousands of autographed copies, many given by authors as gifts.
“The most valuable thing is not the book itself, but the reading pleasure you feel … and the excitement keeps coming because of constant new findings,” he said.
To let more people enjoy reading, Fu focuses his businesses on cheap paperbacks. The bookstore has sold more than 1 million books in the past two decades and still holds nearly 100,000, in genres including literature, technology and medicine, serving walk-in and online customers.
However, Fu warned those thinking of following in his footsteps, “it’s not easy to make a living and support the family with a bookstore.”
Fu has to keep buying used books to allow his dream to continue, but rising rents and the dwindling of the reading population have piled on the pressure.
Many of the family’s bills are paid by his wife, an accountant.
“She does not show obvious support or opposition, but a respect [of my interests],” he said. “In return, I would like to do more housework as compensation.”
Fu’s persistence was recognised and rewarded when President Xi Jinping initiated a national campaign to encourage reading in 2014. Fu was appointed a reading promoter in Chengdu, shouldering the job of luring people away from their online games, smartphones and tablets and back to books.
“It may be not enough to reverse the situation, but such actions will certainly yield some positive results,” Fu said.
Maobian Bookstore took part in dozens of promotional events last year, recommending reading lists for children, neighbourhood residents, students and farmers. “Our job is to select the most suitable ones for specific readers from the world of books,” he said.
Fu also registered a non-profit organisation to explore village culture, intangible cultural heritage and oral history.
“Can you imagine that many locals are not familiar with the Railway Protection Movement a century ago?” he asked.
The railway protests in Chengu in 1911, in opposition to government plans to nationalise local railway projects and transfer control to foreign banks, were a prelude to the revolution later that year that overthrew the Qing dynasty. A commemorative monument can be found in People’s Park in the centre of Chengdu.
Even though e-books have become more popular, Fu, like most of his generation, still prefers paperbacks.
“You must make clear what you read for,” he said. “Paperbacks remain the most suitable for serious reading.
“Reading is more of a lifestyle.”