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Taiwan’s leading bookstore shakes up local book scene
By Matthew Leung and Vicki Yuen

Queenie Wong Kwan-yi alternates back and forth between tip-toeing and kneeling as she scans the bookshelves in the handicrafts section. Each shelf reveals another collection of treasures. In her left hand, she holds a shopping basket containing almost a dozen books and two items of stationery.

The sixteen-year-old student is a huge fan of the Eslite chain of bookstores in Taiwan, where the company was founded, and has visited them no less than five times. But this is her first visit to Eslite’s recently opened and, perhaps, the most discussed bookstore in Hong Kong.

After spending over five hours looking around, Wong is ready to give her assessment. She is impressed by the variety of books Eslite Bookstore offers, especially the handicraft books published in Japan. “I have not considered my budget, I would buy anything that I am interested in,” she says.

Eslite is one of Taiwan’s best known retail chains and has been around for 15 years. The Eslite brand of lifestyle and culture has captured the imagination of not only Taiwan readers and shoppers, but also Hong Kong and mainland visitors. Its stores, which are more like trendy shopping malls than mere bookshops, have become tourist attractions.

Around 70 per cent of the floor space is used to sell stationery and food and drinks, leaving just 30 per cent of the space for books. Book sales account for 30 per cent of company profits.

The success and popularity of Eslite Taiwan means there are high expectations for the new store in Hysan Place, Causeway Bay. However, the business model for the Hong Kong store differs from those in Taiwan.

Under the terms of the lease of the shop, 85 per cent of the 41,000 square feet retail space has to be given over to books. There are 100,000 books in the store, 40 per cent of which are English books. Books in simplified Chinese are yet to be introduced. When the three-storey shop officially opened in August this year, Eslite fever swept the city and there was much discussion of the impact it could have on Hong Kong’s reading culture.

Now, the heat has cooled somewhat, it is worth considering just what, if any, long-term influence the company may have on Hong Kong’s books culture and business. When Varsity paid a visit to the store early in the evening one weekday, enthusiasts like Queenie Wong were pretty much the exception rather than the rule. At 6 p.m., there were visitors on all three floors but not in the numbers that crowded the shop in August.

There were around 150 to 200 visitors, most of them young adults, office workers who had just got off from work and retirees. Around two thirds of them were walking around, while the other third were quietly reading books. Most people crowded around the bookshelves of the General Fiction and Travel sections.

Between 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., a total of 21 customers paid for items at the cashier’s counter, with most of them buying one to three books. Each one was eagerly invited to fill in a membership form.

One staff member told Varsity the peak hour was from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., when there could be more than twenty customers waiting in the queue. “Today is unusually quiet!” she said in a baffled tone.

Despite the excitement generated by Hong Kong’s first Eslite store and the hype in the media, Yan Wai-hin, a lecturer of the Department of Economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says the influence and potential impact of Eslite’s arrival is overstated. “Eslite is just a relatively bigger brand name in the Chinese community,” says Yan.

Yan says he believes the impact Eslite will have on conventional chain bookstores like Commercial Press and Joint Press will be limited. That is because in addition to selling books, these chains have their own publishing businesses, textbook retail services and the advantage of being widely accessible throughout Hong Kong.

It seems more than a coincidence that Commercial Press and Joint Press have sought to change their image and sales strategies in recent months. The moves they have made include major makeovers for branches on Hong Kong Island, longer opening hours, new membership promotions and the introduction of more cultural activities. Chung Hwa Book Company has even transformed its Mongkok branch into a comics theme store.

No matter what the reasons are behind these moves, they should bring fresh experiences for consumers. But there are responses that are out of reach for most independent bookstores.

Still, CUHK’s Yan says the so-called upper-floor bookstores could benefit if Eslite’s arrival boosts the reading culture and demand for books in Hong Kong in the longer term. He says the independents have the advantage of being more flexible with pricing and other sales practices. Just a street away from the Eslite store is Reading Book Store. The person in charge, Zita Yeung Shuk-kwan, says Eslite’s presence has not hurt business so far. On the contrary, they are seeing increased foot traffic since the megastore opened.

As a small independent, Yeung says one of their strategies for attracting customers is to sell books for an average of 20 to 30 per cent less than bigger chain stores.

Joyce Au Yeung is a 27-year-old local newspaper reporter who has been buying books from upper-floor bookstores since she was in secondary school. Yeung says she prefers upper-floor bookstores to Eslite because they charge less and the staff are generally more knowledgeable about books.

Economics lecturer Yan Wai-hin says independent bookstores survive by retaining the loyalty of existing customers. The loyalty is built through the interaction between readers and shop owners. For example, most independent bookshop owners are familiar with their books and readers are welcome to ask for recommendations and make comments.

“When you approach the cashier at Eslite Bookstore, will you expect him or her to be able to give comments [on books]?” asks Yan.

Estella Wong Sau-ling, a part time postgraduate psychology student at the University of Hong Kong, has been a regular at Book Attic, an independent bookstore in Sheung Wan selling second-hand English books, since her undergraduate days.
At first, she mainly visited the store to buy children’s storybooks for the private lessons she gave to primary school students.  Later on, when she discovered that her reading choices were similar to the shop owner’s, she spent time talking to the owner every time she visited the shop. “Sometimes we would chat for so long that I even forgot to buy the books that I needed,” she jokes.

Wong has been to the new Eslite store and says the thing she finds most impressive is the variety of magazines it offers. However, she was disappointed by how noisy it was and by the lack of seats. “It’s more like people are having fun rather than reading at Eslite Bookstore,” she says.

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.