Despite the massive floor-space in the Hong Kong Eslite store, there are only around 40 seats for readers. This is in contrast to branches in Taiwan where a key attraction is the fact that customers can easily find a space for themselves, to enjoy reading in a relaxed manner.
Apart from Reading Book Store, local bookstores that Varsity spoke to, including Lok Man Bookstore, The Coming Society, Book Attic and Art and Culture Outreach, all said the opening of Eslite Bookstore had not affected their businesses.
Economics lecturer Yan believes a far greater threat to the independents comes from the rise of electronic books. He hopes Eslite Bookstore can encourage people to regain the habit of holding a traditional printed book in their hands.
Despite having the backing of a prestige brand, Hong Kong’s Eslite Bookstore does face challenges. First and foremost is the high rent. Unlike Eslite Taiwan’s business model, Eslite Bookstore in Hong Kong relies heavily on book selling. Although Eslite was given a discount rental price, it is still difficult to imagine how many books it has to sell to cover its rent for the massive space, not to mention staff salaries and other outgoings.
Adapting to Hong Kong’s lifestyle could be another challenge for the store. In Taiwan, one of the defining features of Eslite bookstores is that they are open 24 hours a day. Yet, after just a month’s trial of operating around the clock, the Hong Kong store decided to cut back. It is now open till 2 a.m. from Thursday to Saturday. In explaining the change, Eslite said two thirds of its visitors left the shop between midnight and 3 a.m..
Yan speculates this could be due to Hong Kong’s more colorful nightlife. People have many alternative nocturnal activities.
Tony Tsoi Tung-hoo, a former radio personality and one of the founders of an online news website House News, is pessimistic about the future of the store. He attributes the fall in the number of Eslite visitors to one fundamental factor: “Hong Kong people don’t read books, they seldom buy or even read books,” says Tsoi.
As for the survival of local independent bookstores, Tsoi does not think Eslite Bookstore will have much of an impact. He believes the craze in August was just a consequence of the combination of brand name and media effect. Instead, the continued presence of the independents depends on the local reading culture.
Even in a place like Taiwan, which is believed to have a flourishing reading culture, it took Eslite 15 years to turn a loss-making business into a profitable one. Ironically, book selling only accounts for less than one third of Eslite Taiwan’s business. It may be too early to judge how far Hong Kong’s Eslite Bookstore can go.
“After all, it is just the opening of one bookstore,” says Tsoi.