In a bind, Chinese bookstores try to hold out

Updated: 2016-01-29 11:44

By Hezi Jiang in New York, May Zhou in Houston and Lia Zhu in San Francisco(China Daily USA)

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Like bookstores everywhere, Chinese bookstores in the US are selling more than books to survive in the digital revolution.

Call it specialization, diversification or evolving, Hezi Jiang in New York, May Zhou in Houston and Lia Zhu in San Francisco

report on how some brick-and-mortar stores in Chinese communities are trying to stay in business.

T he soy milk makers come in red, yellow, white and black, cost from $119 to $168 and sit on the shelf of a basement stairway at the World Journal Bookstore in the Chinese-dominated community of Flushing in the New York City borough of Queens.

The machines are symbolic of what is happening to many Chinese and other bookstores in the US - selling far more than books to survive. They are not alone. Brick-and-mortar bookstores even on the Chinese mainland and elsewhere are either closing or finding new ways to fight the digital revolution with its online sales of less costly books and numerous tablets, e-readers and multi-media channels. And then there is the problem of people not reading books.

"It's impossible to survive by only selling books," said Bobby Zhou, the manager at the two-story World Journal Bookstore. "We sell everything that the Chinese community may need, hopefully book or culture-related, but not all the time."

Cloth scrolls of calligraphy prints hang on the wall leading down to that basement stairway to where health-related books, stationary and CDs are for sale.

The World Journal bookstores used to supplement the lack of book sales by selling greeting cards and stationary, but technology killed those too, Zhou said.

The stores have shifted to electronics, including juicers, massage equipment and the popular soy bean milk makers. The store in Flushing does get busy when popular Chinese concerts come to town. The store earns a fee by promoting and selling tickets.

At World Journal, books with Chinese names - How to Use Facebook for Seniors and Seniors Love APP - are put at the "Hot and New" section by the front door.

To its left, a book shelf with bags of candy, a glittering piggy bank, two home-gym stretch boards, a black-and-white photo of a foot message board for $55, and a sign: "No discount for consigned goods".

The machines

"Health-related books are our bestsellers. When people read that soy milk is good, they want the machine," Zhou said.

World Journal was part of a Chinese bookstore chain in the US that numbered 10 stores five years ago in seven states - New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Georgia, Florida and Michigan. Now half are gone. In addition to Flushing, the chain's survivors are in Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

"Since 2001, sales have been declining," said Zhou. "Partially because people started to buy books online, but mainly because people no longer read. People hardly read things that have depth."

For the simplified and traditional Chinese books, owners have to import them from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Chinese bookstores in the US can't return books to publishers if they don't sell, so the risks are all on bookstores.

It is much the same story at Xinhua Bookstore on Flushing's Main Street, which started its own express delivery service, shipping goods back to China.

On a big shelf by the store's entrance are baby powders, banana-shaped toothbrush sets and various health supplements. It's also a one-stop shopping and shipping place for Chinese immigrants to send most-desired products back home. When fake salt was discovered to be selling in China, the shelf was filled with the real thing.

At the checkout counter, next to the books Practical English for a Chinese Restaurant and A Key to US Citizenship Test, black plastic trash cans were on sale for $2 each.

Seniors carrying red and black grocery bags walked into the bookstore, looked at the books, fiddled with back scratchers and calligraphy brushes and walked out. No sale.

Blocks away on Roosevelt Avenue, the door of Chung Hwa Book Co is covered with signs promoting board games, mops, Chinese-language GPS navigation and a collection of 50-state quarters. Owner Peter Wang had expanded his book collection to include more English-language textbooks and college test preparation materials.

The Chinese bookstores in Flushing aren't the only ones in the community feeling the sales crunch. Barnes & Noble recently closed its store there.

To Wang, the closing of that nearby bookstore presented an opportunity.

"I need to get more English books," said Wang. "Now English materials make up 25 percent of my sales."

In Manhattan

Fifteen miles and about a 60-minute subway ride away, the 39-year-old Oriental Culture Enterprise Co is the last bookstore in Manhattan's Chinatown. Both World Journal Bookstore and Xinhua Bookstore used to have locations in the neighborhood, but now both are gone. Sino United Publishing in Hong Kong, the owner of the Oriental, sent Nic Cheung and his colleague to New York to revitalize the store after consecutive annual sales declines.

"We used to sell a lot of dictionaries," said Cheung, project manager of the 7,000-square-foot store. "Now an app does all the work."

"My goal is to turn the store into a platform. Make it more flexible," he said, while pointing to a new section by the door called Read About China, featuring books on Chinese language, Feng Shui, actor Bruce Lee and traditional Chinese medicine. "Soon we will hold language classes here. I want to create a Chinese language learning center," Cheung said.

Cheung also has turned to non-books. He and his colleague bought tea sets, traditional Chinese home decorations, and Do-It-Yourself kits from China to sell at the store. "These have larger profit margins than books," Cheung said. "Also, most of our customers are seniors. We hope to use these non-book goods to attract young people."

He also created a section called Four Treasures of the Study, showcasing and selling brush, ink, paper and inkwell for people who are into Chinese calligraphy. The store also sells copybooks for calligraphy, which can hardly be substituted by the Internet and e-books.

There are QR codes all over the store encouraging people to follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Weibo and Wechat. "Hopefully we will see many young people and Westerners," Cheung said.

Back in Flushing, at China Books and Publication, a 1,000-square-foot bookstore, owner Gao Zhong answered the ringing phone.

"Only Chinese booksNoNo," he said to the caller, who asked if he also sells books in English.

"Since the bookstore can still survive by only selling Chinese books, I never considered changing it. If one day it can't survive by only selling books, I'd probably just close it," Gao said.

He changed the store's location once, moving from the Golden Plaza to a quiet block because the plaza became too noisy and commercial.

During the two decades he has had his store, Gao said he has built up a loyal customer base.

He was an editor at Shanghai People's Publishing House, moved to New York and opened the bookstore in 1994 when a rising number of Chinese students and scholars were coming to the area, but very few Chinese social science resources were available.

"I wanted to bring the best and edgy Chinese books to these international students and scholars. But now it's no longer the case," he said. "People from the field of social science either move into the mainstream society and read English books or they go back to China. And the Internet made it easy to fill people's basic needs for information."

"Now the bookstore is just my way to survive," Gao said. "Also that there are people in this world who would spend time in a bookstore is good for humanity."

In Houston

In the heart of Houston's Chinatown, there are two Chinese bookstores within one block of each other that thrive in today's dwindling book market. Another two - the Dynasty and the World bookstores - closed years ago.

The Greatwall Bookstore in Sterling Plaza - a typical shopping mall with a supermarket as the anchor store along with numerous Asian restaurants, tea houses and Chinese medicinal shops - is the larger of the two, with a little more than 1,000 square feet.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Greatwall, said owner Lily Liu who is originally from the Chinese mainland. "Things have definitely changed over time. When we first opened in 1995, we could easily make a profit just selling books and music CDs," said Liu, whose husband James Wang had run the store with her until three years ago when he turned to a different line of work.

As the Internet became a better and cheaper source for books, Liu and Wang found that they had to diversify what they sold to survive. "About 15 years ago, we started to sell VCDs and DVDs of Chinese movies and TV shows. It helped to tide us over for quite a few years," said Liu.

As the Internet slowly ate away the videos' share, Liu found that she had to diversify further - first international phone cards were added, then she started to rent books, video tapes, then DVDs and VCDs.

"There are still a sizable number of older customers renting DVDs of TV shows, but much fewer rent books now. Younger customers tend to buy a movie or two instead of renting," said Liu.

Now a customer can also find Chinese chess, little massage tools and miscellaneous small craft products in the bookstore. Despite the diversification, books still occupy two thirds of the retail space and the book selection stays current with what is popular on the Chinese mainland. One can easily spot works by Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan and the popular series A Bite of China.

According to Liu, the bestsellers are mostly "How to" books - books on Chinese recipes, personal health and learning Chinese. "The book sales account for a little more than 50 percent of our business, and I still consider my store primarily a bookstore," said Liu.

Half a block away nestled in the very first shopping mall of Diho Plaza in the new Chinatown, the slightly smaller Oriental Bookstore boasts a longer history. It was established in 1983, said owner Sui Wong, who is originally from Hong Kong and somewhat reluctant to share information about her business.

Compared to the Greatwall, the Oriental appears to cling to the past - books, magazines, music and video CDs. There are even a few shelves of video tapes with slightly faded covers. "They are for sale, not for renting," said Wong.

While the Greatwall carries books from the Chinese mainland, the Oriental has books and magazines from Hong Kong and Taiwan only. "We also carry books by Chinese mainland authors if the books were published in Hong Kong or Taiwan," said Wong.

Another distinctive feature of the Oriental is the number of magazines it carries. "We sell more than 50 kinds of magazines from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some magazines are for young people and we do have younger customers too," said Wong. One can spot stacks of plastic wrapped magazines with adult content, which cannot be found at the Greatwall.

While the Oriental may not look very prosperous, it survives in today's market of Nooks and Kindles and Amazon Books. "We have a loyal base of long-time customers who regularly come over to look for books," said Wong.

In San Francisco

The customers are in their 50s or 60s. They took a copy of Chinese newspapers, placed two quarters on the counter and left. Lucy Ho didn't even bother to look up from her iPad.

In her Evergreen Books and Stationery store in a shopping mall in the Bay Area, the shelves are crammed with various Chinese books and magazines, divided into categories: students' textbooks and reference books, economics and business, fiction, classic literature and comic books.

At the store's entrance there are dozens of the latest editions of magazines published in Taiwan and Hong Kong, most of them on politics, military or economics. "That's for men, and this is for young ladies," said Ho, pointing to stacks of fashion and entertainment magazines in front of the counter where she sat.

Next to the newsstand was a shelf of DVDs of popular Chinese dramas. "That's for elderly ladies," she said. "Nowadays, young people can always find a way to watch free programs on the Internet."

"My customers are those aged between 40 and 70, and real book lovers," she said. "I understand young people have a lot of pressure from life, especially in the Bay Area, where everything is so expensive. Who has time to settle down and read?"

Chinese bookstores in the Bay Area also sell a variety of things to survive such as feng shui calendars, calling cards, knickknacks, even citizenship test questions and hula hoops. But for some it is still not enough. Alpine Books, which had been on a boutique street in Mountain View for dozens of years, recently closed.

"I heard a sushi restaurant will be open at the location," said Janto Yang, who works at a Chinese bakery opposite the shuttered bookstore. "The rent is more than $5,000 a month. She (the book store owner) said she couldn't afford it."

Ho said one reason Chinese book stores are not doing well is the increasing cost of getting books from China.

"The shipping cost is $7 per pound from the Chinese mainland and $4-$5 per pound from Taiwan," Ho said. "And the books are not returnable, so we must have an accurate control of the stock."

She refuses to sell stuff other than books, newspapers and a small amount of stationery and calendars. "I want my customers to feel they are in a book store," she said.

But worried that her book store may not last long, Ho hoped some cultural agency of China could take it over as a window to promote Chinese culture. "That might be a way to preserve it," she said.

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In a bind, Chinese bookstores try to hold out

A woman looks at the T-shirts, back-scratcher and stationary on sale outside the Xinhua Bookstore in Flushing, Queens. Signs promote the bookstore's shipping service, framing service and health and nutrition related products. hezi jiang / China Daily

In a bind, Chinese bookstores try to hold out

Customers browse at Evergreen Books and Stationery store in a shopping mall in Milpitas, California. Local Chinese residents, usually in their 50s or 60s, make up most of the store's customers. Lia ZHu / China Daily

In a bind, Chinese bookstores try to hold out

(China Daily USA 01/29/2016 page20)