Nanjing bookseller adds passion in the pages

The Librairie is a 4,000-square-meters bookstore in the Wutaishan district of Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu province, which specializes in the humanities. The orginal shop, which started in a 17-square meter site, has grown to another nine branches across China and the original has been described as “The most beautiful bookshop in China” and “The culture landmark of Nanjing”. Librairie Avant-Garde was selected by the BBC as one of the 10 most beautiful bookstores in the world.

The owner of the bookstore is Qian Xiaohua, from Jintan, Jiangsu province, and he is more of a literature lover than businessman. In fact, he is a pure idealist when it comes to managing his bookstores. He loves books, especially those about art, religion and the humanities, and his spirit makes his customers feel warm.

Qian sees his bookstore as a kind of public library. “Rather than selling books, Librairie Avant-Garde provides an open place to let readers have discussions and share,” Qian said. 

Q: How would you describe Librairie Avant-Garde?

Nanjing bookseller adds passion in the pages

A: Running a bookstore is to experience a kind of feeling of life, a matter related to personal interest and quality. I like reading, especially the arts. Librairie Avant-Garde calls for in-depth reading, insisting that “You can always find good books here,”especially ones on the humanities, social sciences and arts.

How long a bookstore can last is not decided by its products, or packages, but the values behind its brand. A good bookstore is a constructive power that pushes society’s progress. A bookstore should always respect the truth or it cannot stand the test of time.

Q: What does your ideal bookstore look like?

A: Librairie Avant-Garde is not necessarily my ideal bookstore. It has transformed with of time. If you do not adapt to changing times or to meet customers' changing needs, you will not succeed.

I saw an old man in his 80s managing his own music bookstore in Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He wears gold-rimmed spectacles, holds a magnifying lens and repairs the books meticulously. I was touched. His hair is all white. He is always busy fiddling with his books on the shelves. He likes reading and repairing books with a magnifying lens in hands. I hope I can be like him when I am old, sitting in my own antique bookstore and repairing books I like.

I feel books have a life. Running a bookstore is like working as a doctor, saving people’s souls and lives. For books, I always have a kind of reverence, just like for life.

Nanjing bookseller adds passion in the pages

Librairie Avant-Garde – Wutai Shan Main Store was selected by the BBC as one of the 10 most beautiful bookstores in the world. 

Q: In the e-commerce and digital reading era, what is the role of a traditional bookstore?

A: The history of bookstores can reflect the history of a city. A city needs not only skyscrapers, but also sculptures, theatres, churches, as well as the people reading by warm lamp light surrounded by darkness in the corners of the city. Reading brings the smells of life to a city.

Bookstores should be a harbor for the heart. When a city does not have a good bookstore, it is losing something in its soul. Bookstores reflect the height of a city. They are spiritual symbols of a city, as well as shelters for the soul.

The government encourages people to read. It should regard bookstores and reading as a public right and interest of the citizens, letting everyone share the fruits of cultural reform and development. I think the government’s promotion of reading is a kind of cultural confidence and inclusiveness, which are of historical values. Nations without cultural dignity are hopeless. 

Q: Librairie Avant-Garde is transforming from a traditional bookstore, which only sells books, into a shop that sells postcards, notebooks, T-thirts or even a cup of coffee. Was this an initiative or passive choice?

A: It is an upgraded model of Librairie Avant-Garde. My bookstore started making innovative cultural products from 2008, an early bird in the market in China. The decision is based on the trend of the bookstore market. After digital book readers appeared, many bookstores in the West entered a difficult time. So, we must act faster than others.

Nanjing bookseller adds passion in the pages

A café in the Librairie Avant-Garde 

Innovative cultural products account for 40 percent of gross sales in recent years, which generate profits reaching 50 percent of our operating sales. If we only ran a traditional bookstore, our clients will become fewer and fewer. They will come to have a look at the books they like in the bookstore, and then buy them online. But our innovative cultural products, coffee and activities of the readers will attract more people. They will not only buy books, but also gifts for friends or families. In this sense, the Librairie Avant-Garde can become a center for young people who enjoy literature and the arts. Many visitors from outside Nanjing will visit our bookstore when they come to the city. If you do not visit the Great Wall, you do not visit Beijing. It is same case, as some people say, for the Librairie Avant-Garde and Nanjing.

Our products are in line with the spirit of our books. Most of our products are made of paper, such as postcards, notebooks, etc. This is also a tailor-made industrial chain for our readers. We hope the products allow the readers to feel the warmth of paper, and experience the old way of reading and writing, a valuable life experience. We are not a stationery store. Yet, stationery products are the most popular commodity in a bookstore.

Q: Have there been difficult situations in the process of starting your business?

Nanjing bookseller adds passion in the pages

In April 2003, the Librairie Avant-Garde -- Confucius Temple Branch opened. 

A: Our branch near Nanjing Confucius Temple went out of business in 2003, a result of misjudgment of the situation and overexpansion. The bookstore was 160 meters long and 12 wide, the longest in China. I really miss that bookstore, because I made great efforts to create it.

Why would I like to run such a bookstore? Once on a business trip to Shanghai, I fancied I could run a bookstore like a subway train, when I stood in a subway station. The bookstore, full of books and thoughts, starts off in twilight. I thought it is meaningful. I started looking for such a place when I returned to Nanjing. I found the underground shopping mall near the city’s famous Confucius Temple fit my dream. I rented it for five years, and spent more than 800,000 yuan ($140,000) decorating it.

I did not do any feasibility research or analysis of the market in that region before making the decision. Confucius Temple, a tourist site, did not have many readers for us. There are many tourists and vendors but it is not a place for reading. My idealism and blind expansion doomed the project.

The branch near Confucius Temple lost several million yuan in one year. I had no choice but to end the lease contract early. I burst into tears the day I sat in a taxi after terminating the contract. My tears were enough to submerge the whole city of Nanjing. It was raining heavily that day by accident. 

Q: Talk about your hobbies? How do you arrange your time after work?

Nanjing bookseller adds passion in the pages

Bishan Bookstore – Yi County, Anhui Province opened on April 15, 2014. 

A: I lead a regular life these days. I am actually a quite simple person, and do not have many requirements for life. I watch a movie and listen to one piece of classical music each day. Before going to bed, I read the Bible.

I do not like sitting in the office. I like communicating with clients most. I hope I can get inspiration and creativity from them. Only people with imagination can go far.

I like going to bookstores. I’ve visited almost all in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I went to 43 in the United States, 36 in the United Kingdom. They are the most famous ones. I may be one of the people visiting the most bookstores in China.

My life is plain, but the requirements I set for myself are high. I do not want to do repetitive work, so every Librairie Avant-Garde is unique. My interest does not lie in commerce, but humanities. I am trying to construct a diagram for life. This is the meaning of my life.


Nanjing bookseller adds passion in the pages

 Photo album: Pages of Qian Xiaohua's life through his bookstores


  Source:                Editor:Sun Xiaohui     Deng Jingjing