Can Public Funding Save Beijing's Bookstores?

By Dominique Wong, September 13, 2016

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Beijing authorities have recently set aside RMB18 million to help the city’s brick-and-mortar bookstores fight back against the rise in e-books and online stores.

The criteria to apply for financial support, which will be released over the next year, include: retailers who are licensed, have fixed abodes and have been operating for three years, according the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

The local government hopes to offer support to 70 bookshops this year, either through subsidies or by procuring services, with the maximum amount for each store set as RMB1 million.

The plan will continue for five years, meaning that by 2020, as many as 500 bookstores may receive support, with total spending exceeding RMB100 million.

It’s promising news for Beijing’s bookstore-wanderers and may be indicative of a wider national trend. In Hangzhou, for example, local authorities subsidized some of the city’s best-known bookshops this year with an annual fund of RMB3 million (in addition to tax breaks). 

These pledges show a government-level willingness to combat dominant online bookstores and eBooks. Online sellers and e-devices, such as Kindle and Zhangyue, offer the big three: convenience, heavy discounts and low prices. In China, e-book sales have grown more than any other sector of the digital publishing industry. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of e-books sold in the country increased by an average of 78.2 percent a year.

This trend is having a detrimental effect on bookstores worldwide. Most face massive downturns, resulting in closures and – in the case of international bookstore chain, Borders – bankruptcy.

But some brick-and-mortar stores are taking matters into their own hands by rethinking their store designs and the shopper experience. Taiwanese bookstore chain Eslite has been leading the charge since 1989. Its massive stores, found throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland, encompass food, leisure and style via cafes, sitting areas and beautiful design. They have also recently introduced 24-hour shopping hours. 

Some of Beijing’s own bookstores are successfully combining lifestyle and reading culture effectively. The Bookworm, on Sanlitun Nanlu, houses a solid selection of titles but is also as well-known for its weekly events (ranging from comedy to talks and musical programs) and restaurant-café. 

Page One, originating from Singapore but found in various Beijing malls, also dabbles in a mix of pleasures. Its giftware makes for a stylish present, while just next door is a European-style restaurant. If the clusters of readers that can always be found sitting on Page One’s stairs are any indication, the combination seems to be working  

Beijing has nearly 5,000 other bookstores struggling to survive in an increasingly competitive market. But with renewed efforts from the government – and businesses themselves – our favorite bookstores may be safe for a while yet.


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