Wu Cheng-san (吳成三) has arrived at his Taipei bookstore every day for the past 20 years hoping to do good business. On a typical day earlier this month he was once again disappointed, but not surprised.
The tiny shop — Taiuan e Tiam (Shop of Taiwan) — stands in a quiet alley opposite the National Taiwan University campus and was established in March 1993 as the first Taiwan-themed bookstore.
Wu, 70, reminisced about the good old days when daily sales reached NT$40,000 (US$1,350) and wondered why fewer people read books about Taiwan these days.
“Ironically, I think people paid less attention to Taiwanese history and culture after we had our first Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power,” said Wu, a former computer scientist at Columbia University who moved back to Taiwan after martial law was lifted.
Wu said he founded the bookstore with the simple mission of allowing customers to find any Taiwan-related book they wanted in one place and was not greatly concerned about making a profit.
The store boasts possibly the most complete collection of Taiwan-related books anywhere — covering everything from politics, culture, Hakka and Aboriginal affairs, to Taiwan-themed English and Japanese-language books, Wu said.
However, he wonders why daily revenue at the bookstore, which also sells CDs and DVDs, souvenirs and T-shirts, has dropped to a few thousand NT dollars.
“Things have changed, as more young people work in China and the government no longer promotes Taiwanese culture and identity. Most television and newspaper reports are now focused on China,” he said.
With the emergence of the Internet and various publishing formats, people also tend to read and buy fewer books, he said, adding that more than 70 percent of his revenue comes from multimedia sales. What surprises him is that more people are interested in Aboriginal cultures, in particular Aboriginal music.
Wu said he has no plans of closing the bookstore, despite slow sales, figuring that by spending less money he would be able to make up for the losses.
Black Lin (林文欽) of Avanguard Publishing shares similar problems, but has exactly the same determination as Wu when it comes to running a business tied to Taiwanese culture.
His publishing company was established in 1982, when Lin was 30, during the Martial Law era, when books on sensitive topics were banned and confiscated by the Taiwan Garrison Command, Lin said. His company survived despite him once running up debts of more than NT$10 million.
The firm publishes 25 to 30 books each year on a variety of Taiwan-related topics, including politics, literature, languages, culture, folk traditions and biographies.
The company grew hand-in-hand with Taiwan’s opposition movement, Lin said, and sold most of its books on the sidelines of election campaigns and political rallies, when police tended to ignore book vendors.
However, competition in Taiwan’s publishing sector has been fierce as more than 1,000 companies vie for a share of a market valued between NT$25 billion and NT$30 billion a year, with almost 60 percent of sales coming from textbooks, Lin said.
The general decline in reading habits among Taiwanese, who on average spend less than NT$1,500 per year on books, has hit Lin’s company as well as competitors.
However, Lin says he has always been resilient and is determined to preserve and promote Taiwanese culture. He has resisted the temptation to publish books just because they would be popular.
“To me, doing so would be like asking a preacher to become a gigolo. I prefer to be a preacher,” Lin said.
The publisher said he was proud of having put a comprehensive collection of Taiwanese literature into print, as well as accounts, information and commentaries on the 228 Massacre.
He added that he is working on publishing books written by Western preachers, soldiers and scientists who documented their stays in Taiwan in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Although he has worked tirelessly to promote Taiwanese authors and publications, Lin said his two best-selling books were written by foreigners: Japanese manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi’s On Taiwan, published in 2000, and former US diplomat George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed, a book documenting the 228 Massacre, which was first published in 1965.
“I am going to keep doing this thing I love until I cannot do it anymore. It is my mission,” Lin said.