The storyline of the Hollywood film You’ve Got Mail is partly about a small bookstore that is being threatened by a big bookstore chain, but in Taiwan the trend appears to be going the other way.
While one of Taiwan’s leading bookstore chains, Eslite Books, has shut down several of its outlets, some small second-hand bookstores are using their advantage of a more personalized service to stay afloat in the current economic climate.
Jiu Xiang Ju is one such bookstore. Tucked away in a quiet corner near National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, the second-hand bookstore has an old world ambience created mostly by its retro furnishings. It boasts a rich library of literature, history, philosophy and the arts.
“We not only sell books, but also offer a professional service,” erudite owner Wu Ya-hui (吳雅慧) said.
She told the Central News Agency that she can help customers who are doing specific research list and find relevant books, including recent and out-of-print titles.
“That’s our main characteristic compared with mainstream book stores,” she said.
For example, she has helped a student find a book published in Singapore on Malaysian Chinese culture, which is not an everyday subject in Taiwan, she said.
Thanks to her professional services, her store has hardly been affected by the economic slump, she said.
Many of her clients are university professors and academics at Taiwan’s top academic institute Academia Sinica. Even the renowned Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai (王家衛) has drawn on her expertise, she said.
Wu also organizes free exhibitions that display items such as ancient maps, books and letters by deceased writers, an indication of the scope of the store’s collection.
Another feature of the small second-hand bookstore is the ability of its staff to build interpersonal relationships with, its customers.
“We establish relations with the people who buy second-hand books and we help customers source and sell books,” said Liu Ying-ling (劉盈伶), store manager of Mollie Used Books, where she has worked for more than five years.
Even more attractive than low prices, are the human connections that develop in Mollie Used Books, she said. The store has grown from a few square meters in a corner of a bazaar to four outlets, she said.
The relationship between the bookstore and its customers is so close that many clients who started out as literary amateurs have become consultants, providing useful opinions on matters such as book purchases and prices, Liu said.
Yang Tsai-hua (楊彩華), store manager of YaBook, related a similar experience.
YaBook was originally an online used bookstore. In June this year, the owners decided to open a shop on a small street near National Taiwan University, because “the human touch is absolutely necessary in the business of used books,” Yang said.
She said that while a physical store requires more of an investment than a virtual one, the advantages are that customers become friends with the staff, second-hand book lovers can touch the books and there is greater confidence in doing business with the store.
Second-hand bookstores are also good at sourcing rare books for their customers, she said.
For example, YaBook recently sold a copy an out-of-print book called Memorandum, which is a first collection of poems by contemporary poet Hsia Yu (夏宇). Yang said a book sold for more than NT$10,000 (about US$300).