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Bookstores turn a new leaf
By Yao Minji

The financially endangered Jifeng Bookstore reopens today at Shanghai Library Metro Station, on the World Book Day. After a week's soft opening, the store for the first time is selling fruits and vegetables.

The store is one of few privately owned bricks-and-mortar Chinese bookstores, in constant threat from online book sellers. Last year it was in danger of closing.

For 15 years, the bookstore was a cultural landmark at its old location at Shaanxi Road S. Metro Station. It drew book lovers from around the city that is known for loving utilitarian books for work or study and books for their children. Jifeng books had a reputation for inspiring people and encouraging independent thinking.

The new store is smaller but there's a larger section for coffee, fruit and vegetable sales, as well as book-related activities including arranging book signings, readings and children's events.

Its new general manager, Yu Miao, a book lover and a businessman, took over last year when the store was about to go out of business. Yu says he's not aiming for a commercially successful project, and the goal for the first year is just to break even.

As sales drop dramatically, Chinese bookstores are facing the crisis by selling other items and organizing cultural salons to even up the balance sheet. In the past two or three years, bookstores have been welcomed by some commercial projects that offer space for low or no rent. Books are said to elevate the commercial environment, and provide more diversity for shoppers.

On Friday, the Lifehub@Anting will host a lecture by Hong Kong publisher Alan Zie Yongder at the commercial complex's Read & Meet Space. This area, owned by complex developer Chongbang Group, is a nonprofit oasis. It is also non-profit.

"The Read & Meet Space has successfully introduced cultural elements into the commercial complex. This incorporation of business and culture has improved the corporate image of Lifehub@Anting," Fanny Leung, vice president of developer Chongbang, tells Shanghai Daily.

The 300-square-meter Read & Meet area contains more than 10,000 donated books. Anyone can wander in, browse, borrow a book to read in the space and relax.

Marrying culture with a bit of commerce is nothing new to bookstores that famously include coffee shops. Many bookstores, including some state-owned Xinhua bookstores now also sell stationery, postcards, magazines and arts and crafts tools. They also sell various beverages and hold cultural events, to which they can sell tickets and where they can sell drinks. Space is also rented out for activities such as lectures.

A successful cultural-commercial model is the Taiwan-based Eslite Bookstore, which opened its first shop in Hong Kong last August and will open its first mainland venue in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, next year. Planning of opening a Shanghai store is also underway. The stores sell not only books but also DVDs, small electronic devices, wine, chocolate, snacks and other items.

Eslite model

After renovation last year, Shanghai Book City on Fuzhou Road, the largest bookstore in town, adopted the Eslite model. Now half the space is devoted to calligraphy, stationery, paintings, pottery and food.

"In recent years, we have seen that bookstores are part of the cultural mix of commercial capitals," says Yan Bofei, founder of Jifeng Bookstore. "It's a challenge for us to promote the tastes of a bookstore while not failing commercially. The key is to balance the two."

It's a relatively new concept to go the other way around, for a commercial project such as Lifehub@Anting to embrace bookstores and cultural projects, adding some cultural cachet. But it's catching on in China's more developed cities.

Fang Suo Commune drew attention when it opened next to luxury brand Hermes at a high-end commercial complex in Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province. The bookstore operator prefers to call it a "cultural platform" rather than a bookstore. It sells books of arts, social science and literature, artworks, coffee and cakes. Exhibitions and lectures are held regularly.

It also has taken commerce to the next level by selling fashion. The main investor in Fang Suo Commune also owns Guangzhou-based Exception de Mixmind, a Chinese brand. It drew attention recently when some of its custom-made outfits and accessories were chosen by China's new first lady Peng Liyuan when she accompanied President Xi Jinping on his official visit to Russia and Africa late last month.

Cultural cachet

The Exception de Mixmind shop at Shanghai Xintiandi also highlights books. The shop's exterior wall is designed as a bookshelf displaying imported books in the arts and social sciences. The books are also displayed at the entrance, while garments and accessories are displayed on racks and shelves at the rear, surrounding books.

"When I saw the fa?ade, I thought it was a bookstore," says Leona Yan, a 32-year-old financial analyst who works nearby. "That's why I stopped and went inside. It was amazing to see a bookstore in a high-end complex like this."

She added that the books gave plus points to the shop's image. "I can see the books are carefully selected and it shows great taste of the owner (or whoever selected the books). That immediately sets this shop apart from other clothing brands for me. It's more cultural."

This demand for the cultural cachet has increased greatly, especially in wealthy areas.

But the statistics on readership in China are not encouraging.

Statistics from the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication released last week show a 1-percent increase in reading among citizens aged between 18 and 70 in 2012 - to 54.9 percent. On average, Chinese read less than five books in a year. The rate hit bottom at less than 50 percent in 2007, and then started climbing in 2007.

The academy's director Hao Zhensheng mainly attributed the increase to an increasing demand for culture that, he said, comes naturally with economic development. He cited the example of Jiangsu Province, which ranks high for both economic achievement and book consumption.

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