With a rich history and laid-back pace of life, Chengdu has long been a literary hub. Many brilliant Chinese writers throughout the centuries, such as Li Bai during the Tang dynasty, and modern literary giant Ba Jin, author of The Family, were born or based here. This legacy could explain in part the city’s present fascination with the printed word. In fact, Chengdu is home to over 3,400 bookstores, ranking second only to Beijing. In 2017, it was conferred the title “City of Bookstores” by the authoritative Books and Periodicals Distribution Association of China.
Just a few years ago, however, it was a different story. Liao Yu, a bookstore owner and industry insider, estimates that between 2012 and 2015, about 80% of privately owned bookstores in Chengdu closed down, mostly due to the onslaught of e-reading and e-commerce, which offered more convenient reading options and bigger discounts.
However, in the past four years, bookshops have bounced back by becoming destinations in their own right. In Chengdu, design-driven bookstores offer a wider range of products and offer customers the chance to embrace a new kind of lifestyle.
Winshare Books: Nurturing imaginations
It’s hard to believe that Winshare belongs to the state-owned Xinhua Bookstore, which for decades was dismissed as being old-fashioned, best known for selling school textbooks. The flagship store reopened in 2017 after major renovations, and occupies three floors in a large shopping mall. Highlights include soaring bookshelves containing a mix of bestsellers and hard-to-find first editions, mostly in Chinese, and even a terrace lecture hall boasting 300 seats.
According to Yue Yuanyuan, Winshare’s strategy manager, the store’s main focus is families. She explains, “Parents are paying more and more attention to children’s education from an early age. We see it as a social responsibility to make both adults and children leave their cell phones and virtual games behind, to nurture a generation of versatile bookworms.
The kids’ section, taking up the whole third floor, is organised according to suggestions from educational experts, who have provided input on book choices, types of lighting and how to divide the space. On weekends, families can easily spend an entire day here, participating in mini-theatre or storytelling with professionals engaged by the bookstore. With murals depicting scenes from famous literary works, soft lighting and comfortable couches, the shop also offers a cosy setting for customers to just sit and enjoy a book.
Winshare also features a stylish restaurant on its first floor, offering a range of affordable food options for those planning to spend some serious time here. In fact, people visit specifically for the beautiful interiors, as evidenced by customers snapping photos with their phones. “It’s okay that some people come here just to take photos for social media. Some of them may sit down and read [after taking pictures],” Yue says with a smile.
“This is why we underwent renovations two years ago,” she adds. “We wanted to attract more people to the bookstore, and we hope they will find that reading generates irreplaceable pleasure and can nurture imaginations.”
1–3/F 9 Square Shopping Mall, 88 Middle Section of Tianfu Avenue
Fangsuo Commune: Gateway to knowledge
Located in Taikoo Li, a complex of luxury stores in the heart of the city, Fangsuo Commune has its own entrance escalator that rises through a vaulted glass-and-metal tunnel. Inside, you’ll find one of the longest bookshelves in China, running over 100m across the entire length of the store.
Taking the stairs up to the mezzanine bridge affords you a panoramic view of the store’s magnificent “sutra depository” design, a nod to an ancient Chinese shelving structure used to store religious texts in Buddhist temples. Concrete columns with angular surfaces cut to form giant polyhedrons soar to the ceiling.
“We want to make our bookstore an entrance to knowledge. A mere bookstore can hardly compete with online entertainment, but a multi-functional cultural space can attract different kinds of people,” says Cheng Chen, deputy brand director of Fangsuo’s Chengdu branch. “Some customers aren’t aware this is a bookstore until they walk inside. Others come here for books unavailable anywhere else.”
“The youth in Chengdu love reading and creating”
Launched in Guangzhou in 2011, Fangsuo opened its second branch in Chengdu in 2017. Fangsuo stocks a wide selection of books in foreign languages, many published in Taiwan and Hong Kong, often difficult to find elsewhere. The store also hosts regular book exhibitions.
Originally from Shanghai, Cheng moved here for the job and fell in love with the city almost immediately. She says, “The young people here love reading and creating and are much more relaxed than the youth I met in Shanghai.” The admiration is mutual: For many residents, Fangsuo is more than a bookstore; it’s a cultural destination.
M68-70, 8 Zhongshamao St
Yanjiyou: Another possibility of life
The name “yanjiyou” comes from dismantling the Chinese character for “design” into three separate characters and, living up to its name, the chain now boasts over 50 design-centric stores across China. The 10 shops in Chengdu all have spacious and brightly lit interiors and custom-designed bookshelves of various shapes.
Its flagship store is located in one of Chengdu’s busiest shopping malls and features sprawling rows of bestselling books, mostly Chinese literature. Inside the store is also a large round area half-walled off by artificial bamboo, where souvenirs are sold. You can also enjoy Cantonese and Sichuanese fusion cuisine at the on-site café.
Starting as a small community bookstore named Reading Today in 2006 in an old neighbourhood of Chengdu, the traditional book-selling business stagnated due to the rise of online bookstores. Then in 2013, Reading Today became Yanjiyou, with a new strategy of showcasing various types of cultural offerings. Yanjiyou collaborated with large shopping malls and reduced book sales down to 20% of the overall business model, making way for retail and F&B services on premises.
Xun Qiannan, assistant manager of Yanjiyou West China regards Chengdu as a “land of promise” for bookstores. “People here are full of curiosity and creativity. The local government also actively supports bookstores by implementing favourable policies in taxation and sponsoring cultural activities.
Today, Yanjiyou co-sponsors the annual Asian Bookstore Forum, where bookstore managers from across the world gather for discussions related to the industry. Writers, poets and editors alike are invited to talk about trends in Chinese literature and the publishing industry at large. These insiders are also invited as guests at Yanjiyou for lectures and book readings. “Just like the products on our shelves, our activities try to attract all kinds of people to our stores,” Xun says. “We provide another possibility of life.”
LG223, IFS, 3rd Section Hongxing Road (Flagship)
Duben House: Freedom and beauty
Time slows down on Binsheng Street, just a few minutes’ walk from Kuan Zhai Alley, Chengdu’s most crowded tourist attraction. Situated within an old one-storey building, Duben House appears to be crammed with books when you peek into one of its two chequered windows. The small white board at the doorstep showcases the store’s “books of the week”, which tend to belong to the owner’s favourite genres of literary fiction and history.
Inside the store, you’ll find two separate reading nooks with simple but comfortable furniture for customers. Along the densely packed white oak shelves are books arranged according to abstract ideas such as “freedom” and “beauty”. Destination guides, maps, fiction and non-fiction sit alongside each other, offering customers a very unique browsing experience.
The owner, Liao Yu, is a doting father who hopes the bookstore will be a lasting legacy for his young daughter. “I want her to be a bookworm like me,” says Liao, who has made many friends who share his enthusiasm for good books. “They always come to me for hard-to-find editions as I often travel to annual book exhibitions in big cities.”
Liao admits it is challenging running an independent bookstore. “People are always going to want the big discounts online bookstores can offer,” he says. “But frankly, Chengdu is the perfect place to open a bookstore. The customers here tend to support brick-and-mortar bookstores so that the city can keep its cultural vibe alive.”
18-3 Binsheng Street
Whet your appetite:
You smell Ying Garden before seeing it. Being a Sichuanese restaurant, the distinctive aroma of spices and peppercorns fill the air. However, just before you enter the indoor dining area, there is a spacious hall where you can browse books from the owner Xiong Yan’s personal collection, volumes rarely found in mainstream bookstores. As a former journalist, Xiong is well-regarded among Chengdu’s literati, many of whom often drop by to conduct lectures.
37 Dong Yulong Street
Where to get secondhand books:
Tucked away in a three-room apartment in a nondescript neighbourhood, Maobian Books’ elusiveness is in contrast to its expansive selection of secondhand and antique books. Shelves of old books line the store, leaving scant space for walking. For collectors who love rare first editions, this is a must-visit.
80 Qingxi Dong Road
SilkAir flies daily between Singapore and Chengdu. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the November 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine