Librairie Avant-Garde opens a new chapter

Updated: 2011-08-16 11:56

By Han Bingbin (China Daily)

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Librairie Avant-Garde opens a new chapter

Librairie Avant-Garde bookstores in Nanjing are considered to be the city's name card. Provided to China Daily

When walking past Wutaishan Stadium in Nanjing, don't hesitate to be lured in by a faint scent of coffee. It will lead you into a former bomb shelter, where the light dims till, all of a sudden, a glittering cross illuminates a corridor lined with books.

At the end of this corridor, you will marvel at the sight of what's claimed to be the country's largest single-floor bookstore - 4,000 square meters. On the roof hang portraits of the world's most accomplished artists, such as Picasso and Van Gogh, and each column is carved with famous verses. There's even the occasional rat running by and water drips from the pipes.

Librairie Avant-Garde, a 15-year-old independent bookstore in Nanjing, is "my literary home," says Nanjing-based writer Su Tong. On a national level, it's a Nanjing name card. Many travelers look in when they visit the city.

Librairie Avant-Garde continues to prosper even though bookstores elsewhere - such as Beijing's Fengrusong - have closed.

Owner Qian Xiaohua, on a book-hunting trip to the capital, excitedly says he is renovating the store and has knocked down a wall separating the bookstore and its storeroom, erecting a glass partition to replace it. Customers can now enjoy seeing behind the scenes of the bookstore.

"I want people to feel like they are in an old-fashioned public library," says Qian, who is a Christian.

Librairie Avant-Garde opens a new chapter

He has also opened up a secondhand section, with books from as far back as the 1940s, many of which are out of print. Offerings by regular customers to the bookstore make up the majority of these old collections. The rest come from painstaking searches of local flea markets.

It is a strategic move inspired by Qian's peers in Taiwan province, he admits. During his frequent visits to the island in the past decade, he witnessed the number of secondhand bookstores there increase from about 20 in 2004 to more than 200 last year. Qian believes secondhand books are the hope of the industry.

He relies on them to draw new customers, mainly aged people who find contemporary publications "too fast changing". Qian believes they offer more quality and originality - and are a third of the price of new ones. It is already the most visited section of his bookstore.

Qian also opened a new store at the end of July inside Nanjing Presidential Residence. Unlike his other stores, this is themed, with a focus on books about the history of the city, a former capital.

Its target audience is mainly visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan. He hit upon the idea when he saw the number of themed bookstores in Britain.

Focusing content is intended to draw in customers with stable tastes and clear purchasing goals. He believes this is a future trend and will open another theme store in a software park soon, selling mainly books about finance and economics.

"I think these are the golden years for Librairie Avant-Garde. When bookstores are being challenged by digital reading and online book shops, we've got to abandon the traditional notion of a bookstore and make changes," he says.

A key factor of Qian's business strategy is to explore new ways of making money. In each Librairie Avant-Garde outlet there is a souvenir shop selling as many as 3,000 kinds of creative products. An independent team was formed by Qian that is dedicated to the design and production of these "little gadgets for the young".

In the past three years, this area of his business has made double the profits compared to book sales. In addition there is a popular 200-square-meter cafe inside the bookstore, where Qian hangs photos he has taken of bookstores in the various countries he has visited.

"A future bookstore is one that keeps up with changing times, to cater to updated needs. People will die, but a bookstore like Librairie Avant-Garde will live on."