SHANGHAI -- The small audience bursts into applause and people stretch to take photos on their cell-phones as the string duo takes their bow at the Yanjiyou Bookstore.
The shelves around them are stacked from floor to ceiling with books, the lighting is low and the atmosphere relaxed. It is not an uncommon scene at many of the country's bookstores today.
The event space created inside the store at the CapitaMall Tianfu in Chengdu, in the central province of Sichuan, has a large screen at the back of the stage and is available for a whole host of cultural events, including poetry readings, lectures and art exhibitions.
The transformation of Chinese bookstores comes in response to changing consumer needs. Over the past decade, nearly 50% of the country's traditional bookstores have been forced to shut down due to pressure from online retailers, such as Dangdang.com and JD.com.
However, many bricks-and-mortar bookstores are now experiencing a new wave of popularity as consumers shift their focus from buying "products" to buying "experiences" amid the country's economic slowdown. Offline bookstores are no longer simply places to buy books, they are reinventing themselves as multi-functional cultural spaces offering both books and a variety of lifestyle events.
Eslite Bookstore, one of Taiwan's largest chains, has been the major driving force behind the transformation in China. The Taipei-based chain started out in 1989 as a bookstore focusing on architecture and design. In 1999, Eslite became Taiwan's first bookstore to open 24 hours. The chain is now recognized as one of the country's leading creative spaces.
The company motto is "wenchuang," a Chinese word meaning culture and creativity, and it has branched out into fashionable designer goods and accessories. It also hosts workshops for guests interested in crafts such as pottery and glass blowing. Eslite's new retail concept, with its focus on culture and arts, is having an altogether unexpected influence on China's bookstore industry as well as its retail market.
With the shift toward online sales, Dangdang.com saw its domestic market share rise to over 40% and made the company China's largest online bookstore. It now plans to step back into the world of offline sales by opening its first bricks-and-mortar store. Dangdang has tied up with Hunan retail giant BBK Group to set up the store in the regional capital Changsha. The outlet will be built around a mixed model of bookselling and other businesses, including restaurants and cultural and creative products. It aims to open more than 1,000 traditional bookstores in the next three years.
Whether the new cultural revolution taking place in China's bookstores proves to be a short-term fad or a viable long-term business model remains to be seen. But for the time being at least you are unlikely to hear any complaints from the culture vultures.
Kosuke Okame is a Shanghai-based business and market research consultant.