Shanghai's lilong-based used book dealers struggle to keep old literature alive

Updated 2017-12-22 17:00:17 Global Times
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Books sold at secondhand bookstore Mephisto

Books sold at secondhand bookstore Mephisto

"Running a secondhand bookstore needs patience," Lu Yi tells the Global Times. His bookstore Mephisto is located on the third floor of a lilong (traditional lane house) community on Shaoxing Road in Huangpu district. There is no signage out front advertising his store, but it has become well known over the years strictly by word of mouth among local residents.

Reading between the lines

Lu, who was originally from South China's Guangdong Province, quit his job in the local government of Yangjiang and moved to Guangzhou, the provincial capital, in 2003. There he ran a bookstore and other publishing businesses with a friend.

In 2010, Lu moved to Shanghai with very little money in his pocket. He found work at a local magazine. Five years later, he and a friend, Figo (pseudonym), started Mephisto. "I had been dealing with books for so long, so I just decided to open another bookstore," he said.

It is no easy feat to operate a secondhand bookstore in downtown Shanghai, with rent being the biggest concern. To attract customers, store owners usually prefer commercial areas or at least find somewhere along a busy street with plenty of pedestrians.

Inspired by the hidden bookstores of Hong Kong, however, Lu and Figo opted to simply rent a room in a lilong. "We found that most bookstores in Hong Kong are located upstairs in tall buildings," Lu said.

The two also started a bed-and-breakfast service with overnight accommodations. "We had a larger space then. And that revenue could help support our bookstore," Figo told the Global Times, adding that the new supplementary business turned a small profit.

Word-of-mouth success

Figo later left Mephisto to open his own bookstore. Lu eventually relocated Mephisto to its present location on Shaoxing Road.

"I didn't make it in this way intentionally, but it indeed helps me screen passersby or visitors who just want to check it out due to curiosity," Lu said.

For him, word of mouth is the best form of advertising. "My customers who bought books here and really like it will tell others who share the same interests as them."

Lu mainly focuses on illustrated books, poetry collections, foreign literature, letters, diaries and some old documents.

Apart from the physical store, he also sells his books on kongfz.com, a leading online secondhand book trade platform in China, as well as WeChat. "I can expect that the sales will increase [from using social media]," he said.

"There are surprises occasionally that someone will come and buy up every book in a specific category," he said, "but I cannot rely on such heavy buyers, who probably won't come very often. I need regular customers, who are more dependable.

"It takes time to develop a fixed customer group, of course, but running such a bookstore needs to be slow."

One big problem bothering Lu is his lack of liquid capital. "A weird thing about secondhand bookstores is that sometimes you think that the books you dredged from somewhere are really good, but they are actually not in demand," he said.

"Different from new books, secondhand books are hard to come by and will possibly disappear if I don't seize the opportunity. So I have to manage my liquid capital well into the future," Lu said.

Quality over quantity

What concerns Zhuang Jianguo, owner of Xiniu Bookstore in Fuxingfang, a lilong of Huangpu district, more than quantity is the quality of his stock.

"The problem in running a bookstore is that you can never be satisfied. If the books are not good, you feel ashamed to advertise it. I keep thinking about how to make it better so as not to disappoint my guests," he said.

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