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Jin Hao quit his job as a Chinese teacher two decades ago to open a bookshop. By 2010 his independent chain was thriving, with 21 branches in Shanghai. But fierce competition from online retailers took its toll, forcing him to close five outlets. He had to make a change.

Zhongshuge, Jin’s rebranded chain, is a shining but softly lit answer to China’s reputation for dull, utilitarian bookshops. His rebranded operation brings readers back into his bookshops with dramatic spaces, mirrored ceilings and walls, and gently curving shelves to give the sense of being in a kaleidoscope of literature.

Ample seating and more welcoming staff add to the inviting atmosphere; patrons can now linger over a coffee and a novel rather than feel rushed out the door. The formula has been a success: Zhongshuge now has five outlets in Shanghai and neighbouring cities, with four more planned for this year.

Across China, independent bookshops are showing signs of life after lean years that saw thousands go out of business. The winners have a focus on design, expertly selected titles and improved literary programming such as salons and readings.

Surprisingly, independent booksellers have the government to thank for the turnaround; an ironic twist given the control that Chinese bureaucrats exert over the publishing industry at large. In a bid to stimulate creativity and shift the economy to a more service-driven model, central and local governments have started to support independent bookshops through subsidies and tax breaks in recent years.

Restrictions remain on the books permitted but the range of titles available is impressive compared to just five years ago. Despite the top-down approach to promoting culture, the independent bookshops feel organic, owing to the beliefs of their owners. “Our concept is that we improve by understanding what has been achieved in the past,” says Jin. “Namely the literature of the past.”

Here we visit some of the country’s finest independent bookshops to find out how they’re turning the page on their utilitarian past.

Zhongshuge
Hangzhou

The main draw at Zhongshuge’s newly opened branch in Hangzhou is the polished interior. The mirrored surfaces are meant to evoke the reflections in the city’s famous West Lake, while the books are arranged on columns resembling trees. The space proved instantly popular: 20,000 people lined up on opening day and the shop sold 10,000 books.

There is no added retail component here. Instead, owner Jin Hao has supplemented sales by starting his own printing press. Independent publishers are tightly controlled in China but Jin has partnered with a state-owned publisher to print classic Chinese novels with Zhongshuge’s own jacket designs, which he can sell in his branches and other bookshops.

The success of independent booksellers has prompted the Chinese media to proclaim it “the spring for bookshops in China”, says Jin. But challenges remain. “For every 1,000 bookshops in China, maybe 100 are profitable and 10 are doing really well,” he says. “We don’t know if our bookshops will do well in the long run but so far it’s been very positive.”

Librairie Avant-Garde
Nanjing

This Nanjing-based chain has earned acclaim for its 4,000 sq m flagship store, an ingenious transformation of an underground parking garage. Opened in 2004, the space holds 200,000 titles – everything from Chinese comic books to translated foreign classics.

Part of founder Qian Xiaohua’s success is in the carefully selected locations for his 13 branches, nine of which have opened since 2013. One is an ancestral temple in a Ming dynasty village in rural Anhui province; another is in the former Presidential Palace in Nanjing, the centre of power in pre-communist China.

But Qian also pays attention to the smaller touches, such as the wooden floors salvaged from a fishing boat in the special Taiwan book section at his flagship store. Because he encourages readers to spend hours flipping through books from the shelves, the shop is sometimes referred to as the second library of nearby Nanjing University.

The Mix Place
Shanghai

Bookseller and fashion designer Mao Jihong has carved out a reputation for his well-appointed spaces that serve as bookshops, cafés and galleries all in one. Founded in 2011, Mao’s Fangsuo independent chain now has four branches in second-tier cities such as Chengdu and Chongqing, with a fifth planned in Shanghai this year. In the latter, he has also opened The Mix Place, a lovely bookshop that also relies on a books-and-lifestyle-goods business model.

Scattered throughout the shop are small tables selling Japanese ceramics, Swiss pencil sets and sunglasses from high-end Shanghai designers. Vintage jazz albums and framed portraits of film icons from Life magazine line the stairs.

The same thoughtfulness extends to the books. Because Shanghai’s former French concession is a hub for the film industry, an entire floor has been devoted to film, photography and design books. The top floor is given over to Mao’s other passion: magazines. It’s the most extensive collection in the city, ranging from independent Chinese publications to foreign titles such as The Pitchfork Review and Reportagen.

“When I started my business I didn’t view it merely as a bookshop,” says Mao. “It’s a place where people can find the books that they like, spend time with friends and find new inspiration.”

Censorship
Bookshops may have newfound support from the government in China but strict controls remain on what books can be published and sold on the mainland. Every book and magazine must be screened for objectionable content before making it onto the shelves, with politics, history, human rights and sex being the most sensitive areas.

Foreign authors must often agree to changes to publish in China – a compromise that many grudgingly accept to reach Chinese readers. The US author Peter Hessler published three books in China with tweaks but refused to publish a fourth that would have required more extensive deletions. For Chinese writers the most insidious effect of the regulations is self-censorship, an issue that award-winning novelist Murong Xuecun has spoken about forcefully in recent years.

With Chinese president Xi Jinping now calling on writers to promote the Communist party’s “core socialist values” in their works, the environment doesn’t look likely to improve anytime soon.

Why the new bookshops are working
The owners are sincere in their love of literature – and it shows. They’ve worked hard to improve the quality of the titles on their shelves, train their staff properly and create much-needed cultural spaces for cities largely devoid of similar options.

Room for improvement
Retail may keep some shops afloat but booksellers should keep literature at their core and resist the temptation to become “select shops”. Bookshops must also take a thoughtful approach to expansion. A rapid roll-out of branches could cause a slip in standards, which is of particular concern in China where quality has always been difficult to maintain.

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