Founder of Taiwan’s Eslite Bookstore passes away, remains an inspiration for bookshops struggling against a digital future

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/20 18:53:39



Robert Wu Photo: IC



 

Customers enjoy a day at the Eslite Bookstore in Taipei, Taiwan on October 13, 2014.Photo: IC





On Wednesday, My Time in Eslite - the autobiography of Robert Wu (Wu Ching-yu), the founder of Eslite, the largest bookstore chain on the island of Taiwan - reached bookshelves.

The book's publisher, the Commonwealth Publishing Company, was originally going to hold a launch ceremony on Thursday, but canceled it at the last minute due to shocking news from Tuesday: Wu had passed away at age 68 from heart disease.

"We decided to cancel the launch ceremony. The news came so abruptly… We are heartbroken," said Lin Tianlai, general manager of Commonwealth Publishing, in an interview with the Shanghai-based thepaper.cn on Tuesday.

The report of his death soon sparked an outpouring of tributes on Chinese social media.

"The [Eslite] bookstore could have just sold books, paper and stationery, but he [Wu] turned it into a place to study the beauty of life, a cultural benchmark and an everlasting soulful pursuit," posted renowned Taiwan writer Lung Ying-tai on her Facebook account on Tuesday night.

"I appreciate what he did for Taiwan, respect his contributions to Chinese and moreover, feel heartbroken about the hardships he endured that turned his hair gray…"she wrote.

Renowned mainland writer Mai Jia also expressed his condolences on Sina Weibo on Wednesday, "Mr Wu Ching-yu handed in a soulful page with Eslite. His efforts enabled more people to enjoy the company of books. He is worthy of our tears… RIP!"

Role model

Born in 1950 in Tainan county in the southwestern part of Taiwan, Wu is widely considered a role model in the cultural industry due to his efforts to instill a humanitarian spirit into a culture space.

"One of the most valuable things about an Eslite bookstore is the spirit and atmosphere of the space," wrote one report on news portal ifeng.com.

"The atmosphere at Eslite reinforces a customer's identity as a reader and human being, which is an approach that is completely different from that of many money-driven businessmen. Wu has earned our respect," the article wrote.

The decision to create such a bookstore is closely tied to the founder's personal experiences.

"I was diagnosed with a congenital cardiovascular disease and it was dangerous to have an operation for it back then. This forced me to think about the meaning of life," Wu wrote in an article published on the CEIBS Business Review in 2014.

"I proposed humanitarianism, culture, art, creativity and life as the concepts for Eslite. It is a refinement of love, charity and beauty that supports my life," wrote Wu.

Facing a digital future

Starting out as a 24-hour bookstore in Taipei, Eslite has developed into an enormous corporation that operates galleries and a publishing house, arranges lectures and live performances, produces creative cultural products and even owns real estate ventures across Taiwan, Hong Kong and Chinese mainland.

Revenue of Eslite Corp reached over NT$15 billion ($490 million) in 2015, according to a chinatimes.com article.

"Eslite invented the 24-hour bookstore. It is a paradise for university students. When I was a student, instead of going to bed, my friends and I rode our motorcycles to Eslite," said Ma Jiahui, a Hong Kong-born writer who got his bachelor's degree in Taiwan, as quoted by thepaper.cn report.

During a time when traditional publishing and brick-and-mortar bookstores face fierce competition from digital platforms, Eslite has continued to shine. There are now more than 40 such bookstores across Taiwan. The chain has even spread to Hong Kong and, in November of 2015, the Chinese mainland with a store in Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province.

Although the company is a model of success today, getting there was not easy. The company suffered from financial difficulties for as long as 15 years.

"Only friends know just how difficult it was for him behind the scenes," Lung wrote on her Facebook.

"People often said I bore the burden while Eslite was losing money for those 15 years, but for me, it was about sticking to my beliefs after a decision had been made and not giving up no matter how dark things might get," Wu wrote in the preface to My Time in Eslite.

A place to relax

"Every tourist guidebook recommends Eslite," Zhao Jingwen, a 25-year-old Beijing middle school teacher who traveled to Taiwan in 2016, told the Global Times, going on to describe her experience in the bookstore's Kaohsiung branch as "amazing."

"Eslite looks like a combination of a cafe, a library, a bookstore and a store of cultural products," Zhao said, pointing out that compared to its mainland counterparts, the bookstore felt less commercial since there were barely any promotional or sale signs seen anywhere.

"The atmosphere there is very tranquil," she said.

As news of Eslite's success with its business model spread, similar bookstores selling food and other knickknacks in addition to books have appeared in the Chinese mainland, with the Guangzhou-based Fang Suo Commune (its first store opened in 2011) and the Beijing-based Owspace (its first store opened in 2005) as leading examples.

Other 24-hour bookstores have been testing the waters in cities like Xi'an in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province and Hefei in East China's Anhui Province as well. 


Newspaper headline: Closing chapter



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