Bookstores expand into China’s rural areas, help lift locals from ‘cultural poverty’

By Ji Yuqiao Source: Global Times Published: 2020/12/23 18:03:39

The village bookstore in Shaxi, Southwest China's Yunnan Province Photo: Courtesy of the Librairie Avant-garde bookstore chain

While some feel that bookstores are fading away, one Chinese bookstore has found new life by marching into rural areas and ethnic minority regions in China, bringing colorful cultural life and higher incomes to local residents. 

By incorporating local rural characteristics, the village branches of the Librairie Avant-garde bookstore chain have transformed into important platforms to display local history, culture and folk tradition that are even attracting many young migrant workers back to their hometowns. 

These village branches are not just bookstores, they are foundations that are helping to relieve spiritual poverty and centers for gathering and displaying rural culture.

The small population and less-than-convenient transport infrastructure in rural areas doesn't seem to bother the managers and owners of these bookstores too much. Two branch managers, Li Xia and Liu Yating told the Global Times that turning a profit is not their one and only aim.

"We hope our bookstores can act as pioneers to attract more attention to Chinese villages to inspire people to come back to these beautiful villages," Li said.

Returning vitality 

Librairie Avant-garde, which opened its first bookstore in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province, has made the list of the most beautiful bookstores in the world several times over the years. In 2013, its original location was named by CNN as the most stunning bookstore in China.

The chain has had five branches in rural areas since 2014, one of which was built in a small cliffside village with only a few hundred residents and another rooted in a region the Bai ethnic minority region.

The village bookstore in Shaxi, Southwest China's Yunnan Province Photo: Courtesy of the Librairie Avant-garde bookstore chain

The branch in the cliffside village, called the Pingmin Bookstore (lit: common people's bookstore), was once the cultural hall of the village in East China's Zhejiang Province. Architect Zhang Lei retained the exterior earthen walls of the building, while carrying out a major makeover of the interior space.

The mountain view is the store's greatest asset. If visitors look out of its French Windows, they can see grand plains in the distance.

The manager Li said that the village is more than 600 years old and that this long history was an important factor when it came to choosing a location for the branch.

In recent years, the village had been experiencing difficulties in sustaining its vitality as young residents were leaving for urban areas. Fortunately, the arrival of the bookstore has improved this situation. 

Since it was established, more and more visitors have been heading to the ancient village. During the 2020 May Day and National Day holidays, the daily number of tourists traveling to the village surpassed the 5,000 mark. Surrounding the bookstore, several restaurants and hotels have opened.

The opportunities this change had brought were quickly capitalized on by returning young residents who had worked in big cities.

Li admitted that running a bookstore in this type of rural area has been tough. 

"Transportation issues limit the timely supply of books. The express can only deliver the books to the entrance of the village, so we have to carry the books on our shoulders back to the store."  

Fitting in

To better fit in the lives of local residents, each village branch has its own characteristics, like the branch in Shaxi, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, a major hub for China's Bai ethnic group.

Many of nearly 20,000 books in the store are related to the history, geography and folk customs of Yunnan and the Bai people.

"Our bookstore has become a public gathering space for villagers. Not only young people, but many elderly residents come here. They do not buy books, but pass the time by reading or chatting with each other in our store," Liu explained.

She added that this is a cultural atmosphere that bookstores offer the area.

Some residents have grown accustomed to turning to the books of the store to seek answers to the troubles they face, such as operating a business or attracting tourists from urban areas. 

One of the biggest benefits of opening bookstores in villages is that it helps provide a healthy environment for children's growth.

"I see many elementary school kids often come to our store. They love reading books here. Their and our store's growth will be closely linked for the next 20 years," Liu said.

Newspaper headline: New Life

Posted in: BOOKS

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