Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop in China for the Beijing Book Fair, where he’ll be giving this speech on independent bookselling in America.
January 10, 2008
“Things develop ceaselessly.”—Mao Zedong
We roll out at 8 a.m. this morning. The weather has turned significantly colder and this was not a Blue Sky Day.
We were scheduled today to visit four bookshops in the greater Beijing area, and on our way to the first store we stopped for photo ops near the Beijing Olympic Stadium. This breathtaking structure looks like a landing site for alien interplanetary spaceships. I prefer the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in Tiantan Park.
Our first stop was the Beijing Shuimu branch of the O2 Sun Bookstore. It’s located on a corner, so the store’s visibility to its customers is excellent. There is a beautiful little coffee shop on the second floor, and it has an interesting stationary section. Our info packets contain the following charming description:
An urban living bookstore calls for ‘pleasant reading’, a café fills with cappuccino, a small resting dak appeases your soul. Whatever intent you come to here with, you can breathe the fresh 02 from the photosynthesis. The bookstore doing books about ‘language, walk, and communication’, and it is also has the yellow sun flower and warm lamplight.
Next stop was the All Sages Bookstore and Thinker’s Café Bar, located on Chengfu Street outside the east gate of Beijing University. This is an awesome academic bookstore, one of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The exterior signage is incredibly minimal, and one would not guess what a jewel is here from the street entrance.
After we look around the store a bit, we’re introduced to Suli Liu, the store’s owner and founder. Mr. Suli invites us to tea in the Thinker’s Café, and we quickly get into a conversation comparing the book business in China and the United Stastes. We are joined by Xue Ye, President of the China Private Book Industry Committee, an organization that sounds somewhat like the American Booksellers Association (if I understand Mr. Xue correctly). Xue Ye is an intense man with a good sense of humor. He vibrates with energy.
Suli Liu has decorated the walls of the Thinker’s Café with photographs of bookstores, and we are all enormously pleased to see a picture of City Lights there. Paul poses with Suli Liu for a photo.
Our packet included the following information:
The name of All Sages originated from the western ghost festival-Halloween, the antetype of the bookstore’s logo, blue devil in Indian devil mask. However, with public’s mouth-to-ear transmitting, the meaning of “ten thousand sages” is more appropriate to the bookstore, “I prefer to understand it as ‘ten thousand sages,’ all these ten thousand sages are authors in All Sages Bookstore’s bookshelves, and I am one of readers who get benefits from these sages,” Xichuan, Chinese poet said. So, the English name of the bookstore changes from “Halloween” previous to “All Sages Bookstore” now.
After lunch, we visit the Beijing Books Building, a huge eight floor state-owned bookstore located in a bustling downtown neighborhood that reminds me of midtown Manhattan. We decide this must be the biggest bookstore in the world, until someone tells us there is a larger store in a southern Chinese city. The store is packed with people and seems to have everything, including most of the recent American bestselling non fiction titles, which have been translated into Chinese.
From our packet:
The prosperous customers flow over a long period, the outstanding sales in the book industry, all these help Beijing Books Building stabilize its No.1 status in the domestic book retail selling market. Its sales plan always becomes the vane of domestic book popularity and the information origin for domestic publishing houses which they have to think a lot of as well.
We end our tour at the Beijing Sanlian Taofen Bookstore, another absolute jewel of a bookshop. Rick has friends in Seattle who told him not to miss this place. The info packet tells us:
If you like books about social science and human culture, it is a perfect choice of going to the Sanlian Taofen Bookstore. Beijing Sanlian Taofen Bookstore is one of the most favorite bookstores for many youth who love literature. This bookstore is a best place for free reading, and “reading in stairs” is a specialty of it.
We meet with Zeng Jun, the manager of Sanlian Taofen, a calm and gracious lady who is proud of the long history of the store. Sanlian Taofen has some kind of institutional affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party, if I understood Ms. Zeng correctly. The logo of the store, a stylized image of three workers, is based on a Soviet design.
Although I like nothing more than visiting independent bookshops, sleep deprivation is catching up with me and I begin to feel ill after our banquet dinner. I worry that I’ll vomit on the bus back to the hotel, but I make it. Then I’m sick. Then I go to bed.
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .