|By Shang Zuo
Xidan Book Building, one of the largest bookstores of Beijing, is quite a sight. The four-floor
building has endless shelves and aisles packed with books and readers. It can easily keep one awestruck.
Just imagine the work behind every book. Every book takes its author several years to finish and then
takes editors several months, if not years, to edit and publish. This book superstore displays hundreds of
thousands of books, which is only a small fraction of new books published every year in this country. I
feel humbled and awed every time I walked into the vast space of this bookstore.
But, for book lovers, there are many different choices beside superstores. Large bookstores are
located in commercial districts. They are often too crowded, and despite their huge collections of
popular books, they cannot meet everyone’s needs.
On the northwest side of Beijing reside the best colleges and universities of China. There are some
distinguished bookstores near the campuses. Two of my favorites are Fengrusong and Wansheng (or All
They don’t seem distinguished from the outside at all. Fengrusong is located on the underground
level of an office building outside of Peking University. Conversely, to enter All Sages, customers have
to climb up narrow and steep stairs. It’s the books that make the stores different. Like I said, an average
book, perhaps, takes its author several years to complete. But here, many books took a scholar’s lifetime
to accomplish. These bookstores are quiet. Their visitors are students and scholars. I once saw a student
who was the most shortsighted person I have ever seen in my life. He literally put the book on his nose to
read the page, like smelling it. The gesture was imprinted in my memory.
The bonds between the bookstores and their customers are uncommonly strong, which can be
reflected in an interesting story I overheard in the dialogue between Liu Suli, the owner of All Sages,
and a Japanese publisher, Kato Keiji. There was a rumor going around that Mr. Liu was about to close
down All Sages and move to the United States. A great uproar ensued. Customers angrily accosted him.
“You think,” exclaimed one, “that you can open this store, then close it down whenever you feel like it?”
It is exactly that deep connection that encourages Liu. He said, “Clearly, All Sages has become
something much bigger than the enterprise of just one individual.”
Fengrusong and All Sages are specialized in certain fields. For those who are not serious readers,
there are small bookstores and stands for casual reading. When I was in middle school, the city’s streets
had a lot of stalls selling clothes, small electronics, and foods. Book stalls were plenty too. I supposed
the owners were not highly educated people, but their collections were decent, from comic books and
wuxia novels (a type of fantasy fiction about kung fu society) to poems and economics and stock market
analysis. About 10 years ago, those stalls were eliminated from the streets, giving space to sidewalks
and lawns. Markets were converted to shopping malls. I can’t say I miss those stalls, but I miss those old
days very much. Toward the year’s end, I would go to those stalls with friends to select holiday cards for
classmates, in the cold winter winds of Beijing, with a baked sweet potato in my hand.
My nostalgia aside, no one really wants to read books outside in wintertime with numb fingers.
However, there are exceptions. Book markets are a good place to get discounted books! Parks have
regular book markets for readers. They often happen once a season, and last for one or two weeks. They
are not arranged by bookstores, but by publishers, which is one of the reasons for lower prices. On
weekends, these markets can be a festival to book lovers. Shopping for books in parks is no doubt a
There are also some bars called “book bars” that have opened in recent years, which I haven’t
I don’t know what will happen to all these places when Internet book sellers arise to dominance. I
hope they won’t disappear. I believe readers need bookstores.