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City's private-sector bookstores in a bind

05-14-2010 11:31 BJT

Financial struggles and preferences for State shops speak volumes for small retailers

Li Shiqiang is an easily contented man.

Workers at the Disanji Bookstore, the once biggest private book seller in Beijing, pack up books before it closes its operation. Disanji went bankruptcy in January due to insolvency and bad management. [Wang Jing / China Daily]
Workers at the Disanji Bookstore, the once biggest private 
book seller in Beijing, pack up books before it closes its 
operation. Disanji went bankruptcy in January due to insolvency
and bad management. [Wang Jing / China Daily]

His inner calm belies his struggles throughout the years as the owner of the first private bookstore in Beijing.

For several years, the business has operated in the red. On some days, Li sells only three or four books and many customers just come to browse.

"We should have closed the bookstore because the sales barely cover the utility bills," Li told METRO.

Opened in 1988 at a time when the State-owned Xinhua Bookstore served as the only books supplier, Li's Sanwei Bookstore has been stocking its titles on open shelves and providing a casual spot for browsing and even reading.

That's in stark contrast to the Xinhua stores, at the time known for surly customer service and high counters that made it difficult to peruse the selection.

Keeping patrons engaged is a hallmark of Sanwei, which offers weekend lectures on academic topics ranging from law and philosophy to politics, wooing many avid readers.

"Only on weekends, we gather dozens of customers, but on other occasions, visitors are few and far between," Li said.

Li added that what sustains him and the bookstore is his belief that the shop provides a public service, rather than a concern for profits.

Besides, Sanwei doesn't need to rent a place, because he owns the two-story building that houses the shop.

Other private bookstores are not as lucky. Another well-known private bookstore in Beijing, One Way Street Library, had to relocate to the Solana lifestyle shopping center near the East Fourth Ring Road from the northern Yuanmingyuan as a result of the pressure of mounting rental fees.

Pan Yuning, director of public relations for One Way Street Library, said since the relocation last September, the bookstore operated at a loss for six of the past seven months.

The bookstore also boasts weekend lectures and also has a caf on the second floor.

Pan said private bookstores cannot profit from book sales alone.

"When there is a lecture, the customers would like to sit down and buy a drink, which unfortunately has turned out to be the main source of income for the bookstore," Pan told METRO.

She said Solana officials gave her store a preferential rent to diversify the center's retail mix and lend more culture to the area.

Still, she needs to make a profit.

"Our situation is emblematic of the problems faced by the many private bookstores in Beijing, most of which are experiencing a hard time," Pan said.

According to Beijing OpenBook, a company that provides information services for the books market, in 2009, sales at the big and medium-size bookstores, including the State-owned Xinhua stores, rose steadily, while private bookstore sales declined.

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