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Carving out rare nooks for books

YOU'D think that a vibrant, cultural city like Shanghai would be filled with bookstores and book cafes - big ones, little ones, creative and independent ones for every taste.

But it's not.

Book lovers are frustrated and those with dreams of opening their own little shop often find their visions shattered by harsh realities of costs and a busy population that is furiously going about their business making money.

Those book cafes and stores are supposed to be like no-stress oases in frantic cities.

They're places to relax, browse, sip good coffee, maybe eat some pastry, sink back in a sofa, listen to classical or traditional Chinese music, appreciate some art, watch the cats wander around - and chat about books and ideas.

Shanghai Daily initially planned to write a guide to interesting, independent bookstores and set out to interview the owners of 10 places that have been quite well known. But around half have been closed because of sky high rent and other costs - and few customers.

Two years ago, Alex Kow from New York had to close down a book shop in Shanghai that he dreamed of opening.

The former investment banker, who moved to New York with his parents when he was 10, remembers such a charmed bookstore from his childhood, the Reading Cafe, where he was always taken by his book-lover mother.

"It made a powerful impression - shelves of classic books, steam from a coffee maker and guests all sitting comfortably just like at home," he recalls.

Since he returned to Shanghai in 2002 on a business trip, Kow had been looking for such a place. The book cafe was no longer there and he couldn't find another haven.

He left in disappointment but decided to return and open a cozy store in 2003, working with his cousin.

Kow invested 300,000 yuan (US$44,300) for rent, renovation, salaries and book purchase, and his cousin ran the store.

"The paperwork was easier and faster than I expected, but it was really difficult to find a place - you don't want to be out in the suburbs, but crazy property prices in Shanghai were already an obstacle at that time," he says.

He initially settled on the Xinzhuang area of Minhang District, between the downtown and suburbs. It was renovated just as Kow envisioned - the nice coffee maker, the comfortable sofa, the simple decor, the good books.

"But there were no customers at all," recalls Kow. "I made the wrong decision to put it in Xinzhuang, but that was as much as I could afford. We had two customers in the first three weeks, and 10 in the first month."

They promoted the bookstore on all kinds of forums that book lovers might visit and they got enthusiastic feedback. Everyone loved the idea, but it was simply too far away.

High rent was a big problem, and all the deals with publishers had to be in cash, which was a bigger headache.

"In a small store like this, we had to pay cash for each deal," says Kow. "I wanted to keep getting good books to maintain the quality of the collection, but I couldn't afford to keep pouring in cash when it wasn't making money."

Kow had to close the store six months later, seeing no hope of sustaining it. Today rent on the same place is five times higher.

Still, he's contemplating opening another place, maybe near Julu Road.

Here's a look at a few of the small and interesting book nooks - there are others in the suburbs, but they're a long way off. Most of the books are in Chinese, though most of the stores offer some books in English.

The only one making a go of it is the Old China Hand Reading Room, owned by Deke Erh, a famous photographer.

The others are worried about their future.


Just around the corner from the Shanghai Library, this garden and patio venue is an "idea shop" that opened to visitors in May. It was a bookstore, but the owners couldn't make a go of it and decided to add old records, CDs, artwork and interesting items.

Its future too is in doubt.

Owners Xu Duo and Yin Guo decorated 1984 with comfortable traditional Chinese furniture, the odd comfortable sofa and two scampering cats that dart around the feet of readers.

"Big sister is watching you," reads a poster of a woman wearing a flowing red skirt. There appears no other link to George Orwell's dystopian novel.

Most of the items there are from personal collections.

Address: 11 Hunan Rd

open Closed Open

It's more of a tiny poetry lover's haven and reading room than a bookstore, and its future is in peril.

The entire shop, around eight months old, is contained in a tiny corner of Grand Theater's History Hall on Nanjing Road W. There are several bookshelves of poetry and literature.

Book lovers sit around a reading table in the center of the room and share their enthusiasm for modern Chinese classics.

The shop was the brainchild of the Open Closed Open Poetry Group, an online network of around 600 Chinese readers of literature and poetry.

"It was always a dream for club members to start our very own bookstore to spread the love of poetry," says Eric Huang, one of the cofounders. A couple of members met in Shanghai and put their dream into action.

The name, derived from the anthology in Hebrew of Yehuda Amchai, specializes in poetry.

It features rare, hard-to-find Chinese translations of Western poetry, as well as the works of Chinese poets no longer in print.

"There's some talk in our group about opening new stores in Beijing, or Chengdu (Sichuan Province), where there may be more fans of poetry and literature," says Huang, who fears for the future of his small oasis.

Address: 248 Nanjing Rd W.

Tel: 135-2461-4011, 136-5168-5843

Old China Hand Reading Room

Better known by its Chinese name Han Yuan, referring to the Han people, it's owned by famous photographer Deke Erh and became known through world of mouth. It's just what one imagines of an independent book cafe - hidden on a quiet street in one of the busiest areas in the city, decorated with furniture from 1920s and 1930s, its walls covered with bookshelves and filled with rare art and literature books.

It organizes salons, poetry readings, piano recitals, photography exhibitions and other events attracting local artists and celebrities, in addition to book lovers.

The bookstore is part of a larger media, cultural exchange and advertising company, which is why it can survive on a street where many other independent bookstores have failed.

Address: 27 Shaoxing Rd

Tel: 6473-2526

Dukou Bookstore

This book cafe is hidden away on crowded Julu Road and shares the door with a typical stylish clothing shop. There's a small garden and the place is quiet.

It's one of the few small book cafes opened by an ordinary person, which has survived for three and half years, a miracle to many.

It too could close any day.

The owner Gao Lu quit the architecture industry to open the store, calling it Dukou meaning a ferry where people come and go.

It has developed a regular following and many attend a weekly salon and buy books only to support the store.

Most of the customers are young women in their late twenties and early thirties, just like Gao herself.

Address: 828 Julu Rd

Tel: 6249-6339

(Benjamin Li contributed to the story.)


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