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February 2000

Survival is not enough

By Janet Chan

Large, well-established bookstores - Undertake reforms against newcomers
Beyond books - Readers’new buying patterns

A decade ago, corner bookstores, bookstores that are located on the second or third floors of old buildings, were the minority in Hong Kong. They were managed to sell books at lower prices. They did not need to pay high rent, as big stores did. These days, however, they are found everywhere. Some of them even have become chain stores.

Greenfield Book Store is a corner bookstore in Hong Kong. With a history of 23 years, Greenfield established its fifth branch in Causeway Bay in December 1999.

Mr. Wong Sheung Wai, the owner of the bookstore, said the business has undergone great changes. Books being sold these days are different from those in the past.

Said he: “In the past, we mainly sold academic books like literature, history and philosophy books.

“However, the market is not as prosperous as before. More book categories are needed to attract customers who are not that willing to spend money on books. That is why we now sell books that are more commercial such as those about sociology, economics and tourism.”

Miss Lam Pik Fun, one of the joint owners of the Luck Win Book Store, has a similar view.

Her bookstore was started 15 years ago and now there are two branches.

She said, “You just cannot ignore the trend as long as you want to stay in the business. You just cannot totally follow your preference in books. We have to follow the taste of the customers in ordering books.”

Besides following readers’ tastes closely, Mr. Wong of Greenfield said good book display and management have become very important as the society has expectations about these things.

Said he: “In order to survive, we have to change and promote ourselves.

“We really should not hide ourselves on the third or forth floor without any promotion like we did in the past.”

But Mr. Liu Wai Tong of the East Bank Bookshop disagreed. He said that despite strong market competition, his bookstore has undergone no great changes because the books he sells are different.

Located on a third floor in Argyle Street in Mongkok, where many bookstores are found, Mr. Liu’s bookstore specializes in books about literature and poetry.

Although they said they consider readers’ tastes the most important in ordering books, both Mr. Wong and Miss Lam still regard their bookstores “non-commercial”.

Miss Lam said that sincerity and interest alone are not enough for running a bookstore in Hong Kong.

Said she: “We have to go along with the trend so as to compete in a long run.

“However, we have our own style and direction. Our emphasis is still on culture.”

Mr. Wong also said he still sells inspirational books, like those related to Cultural Revolution.

Said he: “No doubt, I have to sell profitable books in order to survive. But I will choose to sell both profitable books and books that contain cultural knowledge.

“For example, practical books such as tourist guidebooks are popular nowadays. But I order those which do not only introduce travelling expenses, but also information about culture of different countries.”

He said if they were really commercial bookstores aiming at maximizing their profits, he would not publish books which talk about culture and thoughts.

“The production cost of these books, including the cost of organisation, designing and publishing, can be as high as $10 million. But the prices we set are relatively low. We cannot earn much,” he said.

Mr. Liu of East Bank Bookshop also said his shop does not prefer commercial books such as popular fiction and worldwide bestsellers like the Chicken Soup series.

He said that these books are printed in a large amount and the goal of publishing is purely money.

Mr. Lui said his main concern is to raise customers’ awareness of local literature and make the bookshop a place for exchanging ideas.

Discussion forums, poetry recitals, movie shows and photography exhibitions are held in his shop.

“There was a time when 40 customers gathered in a discussion forum about a book about feminism,” said Mr. Lui.

Miss Lam also said she could exchange ideas and opinions with customers very easily.

“In corner bookstores, customers and bookkeepers are more interactive. We can exchange ideas and customers can give feedbacks about books we sell,” said she.

She said their staff would be stimulated to read more books to get familiar with the books sold.

In this way, they can give more advice and guidance to their customers, a service that large bookstores cannot offer.

She said, “Staff in large bookstores appears to be mechanical, just like robots. Their staff don’t even know the content of the books being sold in the stores.”

Besides selling alternative books, the main merits of corner bookstores are their low rents, which make it possible for them to sell books at lower prices and even offer discounts.

However, according to the owners, this special feature of the corner bookstores in fact makes it more difficult for them to run their businesses.

Miss Lam of Luck Win Book Store said the small scale of bookstores is a problem.

“The supplies of books are unlimited, but the space of our bookstores is limited. We don’t have spaces to display them all.

“We thus have to respond to the trend quickly enough to put the most suitable books on the shelf from time to time,” said Miss Lam.

When asked about the future development of corner bookstores, both Mr. Wong and Miss Lam said the number of corner bookstore would increase.

Said Miss Lam: “More books from mainland China will intensify the competition among different types of bookstores.

“This is in fact beneficial to readers as more books can be provided at lower prices.”






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New branches of corner bookstores are usually more spacious than before. This provides customers with a more comfortable environment to relax and read books. (Tom Ho)




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One difficulty the corner bookstores face is the limited space to store and display books. (Janet Chan)

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