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Graduate bookworms create ‘tree’ of knowledge
2014-11-19
By Lu Feiran

THREE former graduates from Shanghai Jiao Tong University are back on campus, but this time they aren’t students. They are entrepreneurs.

The women, aged about 30, quit their jobs to open a campus bookstore. Zhao Yijia was a patent attorney in Beijing, Wu Xiaojing was a high school chemistry teacher and the third partner, Chen Yifan, was working as a curator.

“Our purpose in opening the bookstore was to challenge ourselves, not to make money,” said Zhao. “So, initially, we didn’t look at it from a business angle.”

Their Xichao Bookstore opened in April, taking over the premises of the former Xueren Bookstore, which was forced to shut last year because of mismanagement.

At the time, Xueren was the last remaining bookstore in the Hualian Life Center, the busy heart of the 330-hectare Minhang campus. Several years ago, there were at least four bookstores there, but they were replaced, one by one, with snack bars and an air-conditioner repair shop.

On hearing that Xueren was being shuttered, Zhao flew down from Beijing and decided to take over the store.

“I learned about Xueren’s fate from an article posted on the campus bulletin board system,” said Zhao. “The article was entitled ‘A University Without a Bookstore?’ The author said he had been studying at the university for nine years, and it broke his heart to see one bookstore after another shutting down.”

Zhao said both she and Wu are avid bookworms, and the news broke their hearts as well.

However, sentimentality is a poor basis on which to run a business. The start was hard. Zhao was forced into a long-distance marriage because her husband still worked in Beijing. Wu had to overcome her family’s qualms about her quitting a stable teaching job. Chen, who had just obtained her master’s degree in France, was immediately plunged into a commercial enterprise new to her experience.

They started with a very clear division of labor. Zhao was responsible for all the outreach. Wu handled management issues, and Chen was in charge of design. They obtained a start-up grant of 200,000 yuan (US$32,632) from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press House, and signed a contract with Xinhua Media, operator of the Xinhua Bookstore chain, for a favorable and flexible purchasing channel.

Theirs was an uphill battle. Bookstores are struggling in Shanghai because of competition from online booksellers, who offer deep discounts and allow people to shift reading habits to mobile devices.

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Victim to trend

Xueren was not the only bricks-and-mortar bookstore to fall victim to new trends. Bookshops at Fudan University and East China Normal University also have closed, while Jifeng Bookstore, once a cultural landmark in Shanghai, has shuttered four of its five downtown branches.

“We have to face reality and build our business step-by-step,” said Zhao. “We have to understand how students today think and connect with them.”

Jiao Tong University is primarily a science and engineering institution, but the trio of former classmates didn’t want their shop to stock just science books. They have one shelf dedicated to French literature; another focuses on mysteries and science fiction. There are sections devoted to ancient Chinese poets and to post-modern Japanese writers.

The bookstore invites students to submit lists of books they and others might like to read.

“A girl once came into store and was delighted to find a book on Buddhism because she is a Buddhist,” said Zhao. “So we asked her to make a list of books that Buddhists would like to read.”

Meanwhile, the bookstore is also taking advantage of social media platforms to organize book clubs and other related events.

It cooperates with the Technology, Entertainment and Design Society of the university in hosting lectures and reading salons for students.

“If you look at the bookstore and our staff as a tree, then students and faculty are the cell power that keep the tree alive and vibrant,” said Zhao. “We want our shop to become a gathering place for people who love books and cultural exchange.”

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Three-year plan of revival

The bookstore hasn’t turned a profit yet, but Zhao said that will come eventually under a three-year plan worked out by the three partners.

“We will take our time and do it right,” she said of the venture. “I believe that a bookstore is needed here, and that will underpin our success.”

Apparently, others on campus share the same belief. Jiao Tong students have started to promote the store on social media platforms, prompting students from other universities to visit the shop.

Hua Xia, a student at Jiao Tong, said he often goes to the store after class, parking himself on the second floor to read books.

“The atmosphere is very cozy, and time just slips by when I am there,” he said. “I’m very grateful that we have such a place on campus.”

Xichao Bookstore has admirers in high places.

Zhang Jie, president of the university, shared the story of the bookstore’s inspirational revival in a speech he gave to graduates in June.

“I think Xichao is a spark to ignite our dreams and passions,” said Zhang in the speech. “The moral of this story prompts a question to all graduates: Do you want to be a person with an independent mind or a person who just goes with the tide?”

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