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Bibliophile Robert Wu leaves behind a beacon for readers of Chinese

Taiwan's Eslite book chain confronts challenges after founder's death

The flagship Eslite Bookstore in Taipei is a major tourist magnet. (Photo by Cheng Ting-fang)

TAIPEI The Eslite Bookstore on Dunhua South Road in downtown Taipei, open 24 hours a day, has long been considered an essential destination for Chinese-speaking bibliophiles. Its founder, Robert Wu, made Eslite synonymous with good taste while retaining a human touch -- and turned it into a retail empire.

The revered businessman died on July 18, leaving behind a network of book and department stores, wine wholesalers, hotels and residential developers that together generated more than 17 billion New Taiwan dollars ($557 million) in revenue in 2016. He was discovered unconscious at Eslite's head office in Taipei and was found to have died of heart failure, though the company has not revealed any more details.

Eslite Founding Chairman Robert Wu, who died on July 18 at the age of 66 (Courtesy of Eslite)

He was 66.

Eslite made CNN's lists of the world's best bookstores and must-visit department stores in both 2015 and 2016, joining the legendary likes of Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Harrods in London and the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main Store in Tokyo.

The first Eslite Bookstore opened in 1989 after Wu, at 38, had a life-changing epiphany following a heart attack and open-heart surgery. "I want to do something that's really meaningful after that terrible heart attack," Wu was quoted as saying in an authorized biography published in mid-July.

"I would like to open a space with personality and soul that people can share knowledge, host art, literature and music activities, and really enjoy reading. ... It should be a spiritual retreat and cannot be classified as a traditional bookstore nor a conventional shopping mall."

DEFYING SKEPTICS Born in 1950, Wu grew up in the impoverished and remote fishing village of Jiangjun, near the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan. He graduated from vocational school and started his career in his 20s as a salesman for a kitchenware company. He quickly showed a knack for business.

By age 38, Wu had become a successful importer of kitchenware for hotels and had accumulated a sizable fortune from the real estate boom of the 1980s. Little did he know that it would take his new, culture-oriented business more than 15 years to turn a profit.

Fortunately for Wu, when early investors began to turn off the taps, he met some important benefactors, including Tung Tzu-hsien, the chairman of iPhone assembler Pegatron, and Stan Shih, founder of PC maker Acer. They fully supported his ideas.

As an investor in Eslite for more than two decades, Tung often said publicly that the company would make Taiwan a more beautiful, likable place. He said he knew in the early days of the business that "people just need to have more patience" -- to let it develop and thrive over time.

In 1999, Wu took the bold step of making Eslite's flagship bookstore in Taipei the world's first to stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In 2006, he opened the island's largest book, stationery and trendy goods store in an eight-story space, nestled between luxury brand boutiques in the capital's most exclusive shopping district.

Wu simply wanted to bring a more human element to the area.

In 2011 and 2012, while Barnes & Noble and other major booksellers were shutting branches in response to the e-commerce wave, Eslite was busy enhancing its in-store experience, planning bigger projects and expanding outside Taiwan. Many were shocked when the company opened Hong Kong's biggest bookstore in 2012, in the shopping hub of Causeway Bay.

The venue defied the skeptics, attracting more than 1.2 million visitors in less than a month. In 2015, Eslite opened another shop in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui district, overlooking Victoria Harbor.

Eslite's head office is tucked away in a high-end residential neighborhood in Taipei. (Photo by Cheng Ting-fang)

In his 28 years of promoting reading and nurturing culture, Wu earned the esteem of the literati and built firm friendships with writers and artists across the Mandarin-speaking world.

"Wu was always so humble and he kept such a low profile, even though he contributed so much to elevating and cultivating people's lives," Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai wrote in a public Facebook post after learning of Wu's sudden death.

"A bookstore could have been a place simply selling books and stationery, but he made Eslite a standard for lifestyle, a benchmark for culture, a promise of a better spiritual life," Lung said. "But only friends who knew behind-the-scenes stories understand that it was such a tough task to accomplish over these years."

Lin Hwai-min, a well-known dancer and founder of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, told local reporters: "We are all fans of Eslite. ... It's a culture landmark and the pride of Taiwan."

Expressing his admiration and respect for Wu, Lin said, "It is a pity that he left us, but I believe his life was pretty satisfactory, as he has influenced so many people."

Ellen Chang, a professional interpreter and longtime Eslite book club member, said the company was a pioneer in book retailing. "It's much more than a bookstore, and for decades it has redefined the experience of book-selling. People are not going there to read a book but to enjoy the atmosphere."

THE SUCCESSOR Wu's 39-year-old daughter, Mercy Wu, had long been viewed as the likely successor and was elected chairman by the Eslite board the day after her father's death.

Robert Wu's only son died in 2009.

Mercy joined Eslite back in 2004 as a special assistant to her father. She was promoted to vice president in 2007 and vice chairman in 2010.

She faces some significant challenges.

Eslite's 2016 annual report expressed concern about rapid changes in purchasing habits and the retail environment, along with global political and economic uncertainty. It also pointed to the delayed opening of the company's Shanghai store.

The company, which also plans to set up shop in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, has found itself tiptoeing around certain topics in recent years. In 2014, it reportedly was forced to remove books on Tibetan independence and other sensitive political and religious subjects, to ensure smooth operations in China.

Last month, Hong Kong media reports said Eslite declined to display a new book about the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China -- apparently because the volume included interviews with democracy activists Edward Leung Tin-kei and Joshua Wong Chi-fung.

An Eslite spokesman declined to provide details, saying he had to look into the matter further.

Mercy Wu is now of a similar age to her father when he started Eslite, and she is surely contemplating how to build on the foundation he created. As she made clear in a recent book about the company's philosophy, standing pat is not an option. "It's more realistic that we have to make progress, move forward and find some new approaches and business models and to expand new markets."

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