Taking a walk down Chongqing South Road in Taipei’s Zhongshan District (中山) — a road commonly known as the Book Street to older Taiwanese — only a handful of bookstores are left on the street, striving to stay in business as online bookstores dominate the bookselling industry.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the street was in its heyday, things were very different: Hundreds of bookstores stood side by side on both sides of the street and were constantly packed with young students and their parents searching for textbooks and stationery, said Shen Jung-yu (沈榮裕), chairman of the Book Street Promotion Association, an organization set up by booksellers on the street.
“During that period, Chongqing South Road was not only deemed the primary Chinese-language book street for Taipei residents, but for the entire Chinese-speaking population around the world,” Shen said, recollecting the former glory of the street.
At the time, China was in a cultural interregnum following its Cultural Revolution, and Taiwan was then the only country with the ability to shoulder the momentous duty of passing down the essence of Chinese culture, Shen said.
Chongqing South Road started to build up its widespread reputation following the founding of the Eastern Publishing Co by Taiwanese elite You Mi-jian (游彌堅) on the street in 1945 — a company commonly known as the first publisher of children’s books and Mandarin Chinese dictionaries in Taiwan.
Additionally, the publishing company was also famed for the many translations of world-renowned novels it had launched — including The Collected Works of Arsene Lupin (亞森羅蘋全集), The Complete Sherlock Holmes (福爾摩斯探案全集), Great People of the World (世界偉人傳記叢書) and the Best Selection of World’s Juvenile Literature (世界少年文學精選).
The celebrated publisher initially started off its business in a red-brick building located at the intersection of Chongqing South Road and Hengyang Road, which was designed by the same architect who built the Presidential Office.
However, following a reconstruction project on that plot of land, the company was relocated to the fourth floor of a newly constructed edifice, initiating the gradual diminution of its eminence on the book street.
After enjoying a long period of prosperity, businesses on the Book Street began to decline after a number of chain bookstores opened across the country amid an economic boom, Shen said.
Then, in the 1980s, the proliferation of video game stores and pachinko parkurs further sunk the businesses of the street’s mortar-and-bricks bookstores.
In spite of governments’ later efforts to curb such entertainment businesses, a gradual diversification of Taiwanese society and the swift development of the Internet brought about some irreversible changes to the bookselling street, Shen said.
In the face of this dramatic social transformation, several bookstores on the street began to shut down one after another. Some owners chose to turn their stores into restaurants or beauty salons, while others put their properties up for rent.
Bookshop owner Huang Wen-tzu (黃文賜), who had been a bookstore clerk on Chongqing South Road since the age of 17, took over the store he had worked in for decades from his former employer in 1998.
“Business has gone from bad to worse year after year, but this is the bookshop I have spent half of my life in. The store will stay in business as long as possible,” Huang said, adding that he did not hire any employees, except for his daughter, to reduce costs.