The Story Behind Shenzhen's Largest 'Expat Library'

By Bailey Hu, February 3, 2017

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Hidden away in an unassuming community service center within Shenzhen’s Shuiwei neighborhood is a bibliophile’s treasure trove. Hundreds of English and Chinese-language books reside here, mostly undisturbed during the community service center’s weekday office hours. It’s only on weekends (every other weekend, to be precise) that the library comes to life.

This is the home of a free-to-attend event called the Book Exchange, which is held every other Sunday afternoon in the Shuiwei Community Service Center. Despite its name, the gathering is more of a cross between a community-run library and a book club. The collection kept here, all 900 volumes and counting, is entirely made up of donations from expats and locals who’ve attended events.

Some books are new additions, their pages still crisp and pristine. Most, though, are weathered veterans. The oldest among them exude a musty odor when pried open, and Shenzhen’s year-round humidity has done them no favors.

Despite the less-than-ideal condition of some volumes, the Book Exchange still attracts a loyal crowd twice a month. The average event sees 10-30 people stop by the cozy space, some visiting briefly to browse or make returns while others stay for the book discussion, held in English.

Every once in a while, the community service center also plays host to a literary or arts-themed event, such as the Writers Afternoon held last December. On the day of that occasion, the space – which had already been lined with tables of books – was filled to capacity with attendees who came to hear five local authors read their works.

writers afternoon nicole schmidtWriter Nicole Schmidt reads her work.

When there’s not the odd special event going on, the Book Exchange is usually a quiet place for likeminded people to meet, chat and, of course, read. Longtime attendee and volunteer Clay Hedges sees it as a refreshing alternative to the typical networking events available to expats in Shenzhen.

In his words, it’s “a beacon for those who want to converse with other flesh-and-blood bodies about topics that don’t revolve around China, teaching and business.” The event is special to him for another reason as well: it’s where he met his girlfriend of three years, who also volunteers for the Book Exchange.

The group’s founder, an energetic American named Glen Cornell, originally wanted to create a “book sharing event” for friends. In its early days, the Book Exchange bore a resemblance to TED Talks, with attendees swapping ideas as well as books, and listening to talks from motivational speakers.

As donations from attendees began piling up, the focus of the event shifted. To cope with the rapidly growing collection, Cornell bought cataloging software and transferred the location to a place with plenty of spare bookshelves. By the time he moved back to the US in 2015, the Book Exchange had accumulated over 600 volumes, both English and Chinese, in genres from thrillers to sci-fi to historical nonfiction.

The event had also acquired a faithful band of volunteers who keep it running, as well as an ever-growing pool of attendees who continue to add to the library.

book exchange tableOn the Chinese mainland, where large collections of English-language books are scarce, the Book Exchange is a haven for native readers as well as those who wish to practice the language. In business-focused Shenzhen, it’s also the rare free event that encourages something other than forging guanxi.

It’s unique in another way too, in that the sense of community it creates has a concrete form. Each book, from the paperback thriller to the weighty tome on Chinese foreign policy, is an individual’s contribution. Taken together, it’s an impressive legacy of knowledge and ideas just waiting to be cracked open by the next reader.

See listing for the Shuiwei Community Service Center.

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