A reader peruses the shelves at a café bookstore in Nantong, east China's Jiangsu Province, on July 7, 2017 (XINHUA)
"Let's meet at the Beijing Book Building on West Chang'an Street."
Chen Sitong, a 27-year-old saleswoman working in Beijing, finds herself frequently repeating this line to friends when they want to set a venue to get together.
"The bookstore is near where I work. We always go in and look through the shelves instead of just passing by," Chen said. "It makes me feel good being immersed in books. Many of my friends feel the same way."
As Beijing's largest book store, the five-floor Beijing Book Building is an ideal place for people to relax and recharge their brains, no matter how old they are or what they do. It's not uncommon to see people reading between the aisles and carrying a stack of carefully piled books with smiling faces.
"Books have always been a part of my life, my parents have encouraged me to read ever since I was a little girl," 16-year-old Wang Feng told Beijing Review while holding a work of science fiction in her hand.
In recent years, as technology races forth and the market for e-books grows increasingly mature, physical bookstores have begun to face a great deal of pressure, with many often struggling to survive.
"Customer demand and the upgrading of people's consumption habits have brought bookstores both opportunities and challenges," Cheng Sanguo, head of the Bookdao New Publishing Institute said on January 11 at a conference on China's publishing industry and bookstore development.
In the face of these challenges, a number of them have already taken the first steps toward making a change, and one of the key players is Xinhua Bookstore, a name well known among Chinese.
Established in 1937, the state-owned bookshop has grown from a single publication and distribution agency in Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, to a company owning 12,000 outlets nationwide, most of which are considered landmarks in their respective cities.
At the beginning of January, one of the Xinhua outlets located in Beijing's Haidian District reopened having taken on an entirely new look—large French windows, yellow mood lighting, and a café with comfortable tables and chairs that provides readers fresh ground coffee, beverages and cakes on demand.
"Reading in those cozy book cafés is a real pleasure. I seem to buy more books at this kind of store than at traditional ones," Chen said.
Originally focusing solely on architecture and building books, now the bookshop offers other genres such as social sciences, lifestyle, and children's books, as well as stationery.
Since September 2017, seven Xinhua bookstore outlets in Beijing have been renovated. "We are witnessing a new lease of life for physical bookstores. Xinhua will not stand still, but bring a new fashionable style and service diversification to our customers," noted Li Zhanjun, Chairman of the Beijing Publications Distribution Group, the parent company of Beijing Xinhua Bookstore Chain Co. Ltd.
The campaign has spread across the entire country. Besides renovating their stores into a complementary fusion of bookshop, café and reading space, owners are also expanding their choices of location to include shopping malls, movie theaters and office buildings.
Various services absent in traditional bookstores are now offered to readers, too. A Xinhua Bookstore in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality began operating a book borrowing service at the beginning of the year, while a store in Mudanjiang, a city in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province that borders Russia to the north, was renovated into a China-Russia communication platform, where a large quantity of Russian language books are available and cultural gatherings involving readers from both countries are held.
"The entire industry has broken from the old business model and is now enjoying a 'rebirth'," Cheng noted, adding that bookstores have now become a place that can offer new possibilities and better lifestyles to urban residents.
Wang Guowei, a professor at Tongji University's School of Humanities, told Lianhe Zaobao that the rejuvenation, or 'rebirth' of China's bookstores is not technically an upgrade because the old single function bookstores are in recession, and the emerging stores are an altogether new "cultural form borne of the changing consumption context."
According to a report on China's book retail market released in January by OpenBook, a Chinese consulting company focusing on information and research into the reading industry, the market in China was worth 80.32 billion yuan ($12.49 billion) in 2017, up 14.55 percent compared with the previous year. The report also noted that online orders made up the bulk of book sales in 2017.
Besides changing their physical appearance, bricks and mortar bookstores have also taken their businesses online in order to meet this growing trend. One of the pioneers of this digital revolution is the Xinhua Bookstore in Changzhou.
Changzhou Xinhua's online bookstore was launched on the retailing site Tmall.com in 2013 and at first things didn't go smoothly, with the company only able to make three to four orders.
Forced to adapt in order to survive, they later explored a new method whereby the bookstore collaborated with certain publishers and famous authors with a large number of followers on the social media platform Weibo, encouraging them to post the Tmall links to their own books.
The initial trial earned them over 1,000 orders in just three days. "It was an enormous figure for us. We were so overwhelmed that we worked overtime until three o'clock in the morning to finish all the shipments," said Luo Kai from the bookstore's e-commerce department.
The store has also tried other promotion platforms such as WeChat and QQ. To cater for a customer tendency to make purchases at night, they increased the number of night-shift workers for customer services and during summer and winter holidays, the online store offers more buying options, especially aimed at students.
The success of these innovations is borne out by the figures; the bookstore's volume of sales surged from 2.8 million yuan ($435,000) in 2013 to 51 million yuan ($7.93 million) in 2017.
"Now we want to progress further and think with the Internet Plus mentality," Li Wei, head of the e-commerce department of the store, told Xinhua News Agency, going on to explain that with the advancement of e-commerce, the online store has changed its own way of purchasing stock from buying indiscriminately to buying based on actual online sales data. In the near future, it will also offer more customized services and products.
At the end of 2017, Xinhua Bookstore announced its partnership with Alibaba Cloud Computing (Aliyun.com), a developer of cloud computing and data management platforms under the Alibaba Group. The program covers all 12,000 Xinhua Bookstore outlets, 584 publishing agencies and 3,000 libraries, and promises to provide a more comprehensive reading experience for customers.
The collaboration has also yielded plans for a 24/7 smart bookstore, which is set to make its debut in Beijing in the near future. In the state of the art store customers will be able to experience a range of cutting-edge technology such as QR code-operated doors, facial recognition, self-service payment, and much more.
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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