A bookstore’s endeavor to survive and thrive in a digital era

Source:Xinhua Published: 2018/1/11 17:03:39

Readers at a local Xinhua bookstore in Suzhou of Jiangsu Province Photo: IC

Zhou Li walked into the Qingguo bookstore, decorated in the style of an ancient Chinese garden, ordered a drink and spent a relaxing afternoon sitting there reading a book.

"I will have dinner here later," she says.

She learned about the fancy bookstore from photos her friends shared on social networking platforms. She came here last week with her good friend, not to read or buy books, but to take some selfies.

The bookstore, decorated with bamboo, old bricks and tiles, was built in a corner of the Xinhua bookstore in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, to attract customers at a time when brick-and-mortar bookstores are losing out to digital readers and online shopping.

Zhu Jingtao, manager of Qingguo, said the bookstore targets young readers aged 20 to 40. Besides books and a range of food options, the store also hosts art forums and book readings.

During 2017, Qingguo's sales revenue from its other businesses nearly equalled that of its book sales.

Founded in 1937 in Yan'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, the base of the Communist Party of China in revolutionary times, the Xinhua bookstore was once the largest State-run publisher in China.

The four Chinese characters Xin Hua Shu Dian (Xinhua bookstore) on the signboards of the stores, written by Chairman Mao in the 1940s, form a collective memory for generations of Chinese readers. Decades ago, Xinhua was the only choice for book buyers in many Chinese cities. The four characters have become a cultural symbol.

However, the rise of e-commerce and private bookstores that put more emphasis on customer experience have overshadowed the Xinhua bookstores, which are getting lonely and desolate, evoking a sense of nostalgia.

Unyielding to the changing times, the old publishing giant is exploring a new life.

In Baoding, Hebei Province, a Xinhua bookstore with the theme "fresh air" was established last year. The building, which is open to light, has become a much loved spot in the city.

Inside the store are large and comfortable reading spaces as well as coffee and tea houses. The store is called "the most beautiful bookstore" by some due to its idyllic atmosphere.

In Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, which borders Russia to the north, a Xinhua bookstore in Mudanjiang was renovated into a China-Russia communication platform where a large quantity of Russian language books are available and cultural gatherings involving Chinese and Russian readers are held once in a while.

"Many Russian students studying here come to read or even paint in the bookstore sometimes," general manager of the store Che Jun said.

Feeling the punch of booming e-commerce, the Xinhua bookstores have been resorting to the virtual world to expand their businesses.

Changzhou Xinhua bookstore established an e-commerce department at the beginning of 2013.

Luo Kai with the e-commerce department still remembers how thrilled he and his colleagues were when receiving their first order.

"Several of us volunteered to deliver that book together," he says.

However, the online business was not as good as they expected. For quite a long time, the store could only receive three to four orders a day.

Inspired by other online sellers, they cooperated with a popular writer who was going to publish a new book, asking her to post the link of the store on her Sina Weibo account.

The bookstore received orders for more than 1,000 books over the following three days, so the store started doing promotions targeting online buyers.

The Changzhou store saw its sales volume exceed 400 million yuan ($61.5 million) in 2017, ranking first among all Xinhua chain stores in the 13 major cities in the province.

"We should not just sit there blaming others about changing habits in reading and consumption," said He Zhifeng, general manager of the Changzhou store.

"Sometimes it only takes a change of mind, and we gain a fresh start," he says.

Newspaper headline: Beyond books


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