By Mark O`Neill In Guangzhou
In the basement of an upmarket shopping mall in Guangzhou, one of China’s most remarkable bookshops has just celebrated its first birthday.
In the year since it opened on 25 November 2011, Fangsuo has sold half a million books and earned additional income from the sale of clothes, designer houseware and other items.
“We have not made a loss, which is very good,” said Jaimy Tan, director of operations, from Taiwan. “Fangsuo wants to change Chinese people. When people come here, they cannot believe that it is a Chinese shop. Mao Jihong (one of the founders) says that Chinese people can make their own brand.”
Fangsuo is less a bookstore than a cultural experience. It occupies a spacious open-plan room. Visitors are greeted at the entrance by an exhibition of art work; then on the left is a section selling high-end women’s designer clothes, on the right are shelves full of books and in the centre is a coffee shop. The interior design materials are all natural – wood, bamboo and stone.
It was the brainchild of three people. The first was Mao Jiheng, founder and president of Mixmind Art & Design Company, which he set up in 1996 along with the brand Exception for designer ladies wear: the brand has 98 shops across China and an annual turnover of 600 million. He invested the entire 60 million yuan in Fangsuo.
The other two are Stanley Wong, a Hong Kong graphic designer and founder of 84000 Communications, and Liao Meili, one of the founders of the Eslite Bookshop in Taiwan and now president of Flaneur Culture Lab.
Fangsuo occupies 1,800 square metres of space in Taikoo Hui, a large office building and shopping mall developed by Swire of Hong Kong in the Tianhe district of Guangzhou. It shares the mall with global brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci and Lacoste.
“Mao wanted to let people know about the cultural spirit of people in the East and started to sell books in his Exception stores in 2007,” said Tan. He met Liao the next year; the two began to plan the new store.
They wanted to give people a new cultural experience and show that Chinese people can create something original and innovative of their own and not simply copy foreign models. They chose the name from the words of Xiao Tong, a crown prince and devout Buddhist, in the Southern Sung dynasty: it means ‘to put your heart here and enjoy things of beauty’.
In 2012, Fangsuo won the Store Design of the Year Award at the World Retail Awards ceremony in London, beating 51 other firms from 22 countries. It was the first Chinese firm to win this award. “This store is game-changing,” said a judge of the association.
A national brand
The three founders wanted to make Fangsuo a national brand. At first, they tried to set up in Beijing but could not find a location with the right terms and conditions.
Then they signed a six-year lease with Swire Properties of Hong Kong, which owns Taikoo Hui. By choosing such a partner, they were selecting their niche in the market – at the very top, for consumers with a great deal of spare money and the time and leisure to spend on the products they were selling. Swire chose them because they would enhance the value of the mall and bring additional traffic.
“We must go to Beijing, Shanghai and other big cities,” said Tan. “We are looking now at Chengdu and Chongqing, Wuhan and Changsha. Or we could open in secondary cities. We will have to check out the conditions.”
Books from around the world
Fangsuo has 120,000 books, of which one third come from Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas; the rest are from the mainland.
It takes two months to gain approval for the Taiwan books. The customs department must approve every single one; it also sends officers to the store to check what is being sold. If they find anything they consider offensive, they will confiscate it, without paying compensation. The company must pay the inspection fee. After paying these fees and import taxes, the books from Taiwan and Hong Kong cost double the amount of those from the mainland.
“We do not import books on history, politics or sensitive topics,” said Tan. “The Taiwan books are about living, health, art and subjects like that.” The mainland uses simplified characters, less complicated than the traditional ones used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
“Some of our clients are not used to the traditional characters but they like the layout and photographs of Taiwan books and the quality of translation, which they consider better, so they buy them,” she said.
The foreign-language section includes books on tourism, interior design, architecture, music, film, performing arts, clothes design, art history, cookery, food and drink, and selected business books. There are no books on the lives of film or pop stars or textbooks to prepare you for exams.
Selling books in Guangzhou – and China as a whole – is extremely competitive. Several well-known bookshops in the city have closed, including branches of Joint Publishing, because revenue cannot cover rising rent and personnel costs. Xinhua, the state-owned national chain, is only kept open by generous government subsidies.
E-commerce platforms sell books with reductions of up to 40 percent; they treat them as sales points, to attract customers who buy other products on which they make a profit. If you order a book online, it will be delivered to you the next day at home or in the office and you pay on delivery. In addition, many people read electronic, not printed, books.
Tan believes that, overall, sales of books have not fallen – what has changed is the variety of ways through which people buy them.
Books account for 40 percent of Fangsuo’s income, clothes 35 percent and houseware and other items the remainder.
The clothes are made by Exception, the brand created by Mao Jihong. When he launched it, it was almost the only Chinese designer brand. The clothes sell for 3,000–4,000 yuan a piece.
The shop also sells houseware and designer brands, including porcelain, teapots and cooking utensils, from Japan, France, Germany and other countries. A Japanese steel tea pot, for example, sells for 6,800 yuan. A French porcelain set of tea cups and pot sells for 880 yuan.
There is an import tax of up to 50 percent on the houseware items. Of the wooden pieces, they have to donate some of the items for the customs to destroy, to see if they contain dangerous or illegal materials; the shop has to pay for this service.
Events and exhibitions are a key part of Fangsuo. Each month it organises six–eight speakers, from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas, to talk about their books, products and designs.
People to feature among them so far have included Irish novelist and poet Colm Toibin, British architect and designer Henry Holland and French scientist Jean-Francois Picimbon. The shop always displays their work at the same time as the talk.
These events play an important role in bringing people to the shop and making it a centre of cultural life.
One event attracted 5,000 people – so many that they spilled out onto the floors of the shopping mall; Tan had to make an apology to the local Public Security Bureau because she had not anticipated such a crowd and the possible safety risks.
At the entrance to Fangsuo, they exhibit copper, bronze, wood and other art work – but not paintings or photographs. The exhibition changes each month. The current one shows tin pieces by Japanese artist Yoshihide Nosaku.
For the entrance, Mao bought a 400-year-old tree in Foshan that had been lying on the ground for 80 years. He needed a tree of this thickness so that the entrance could be made from a single piece.
The shop has received extensive coverage from the mainland media, in print, television and on the Internet. It seems to have tapped in to the desire of people in Guangzhou to see their city move up the value chain, from a city of production and commerce to one of culture and creativity.
Huang Ying-hong, a secondary school teacher, said that Fangsuo was a different kind of store. “It aims to change the image of bookstores as dull places only for bookworms. This is cool and fashionable, a place you would like to be seen in. It has been very active in arranging events and inviting outside speakers. These events are well attended. People who go to Taikoo Hui are wealthy. Spending 100–200 yuan on a book is easy for them.
“It is a niche bookshop. Its selection is not very wide – many titles are from Taiwan and Hong Kong, mostly on light subjects, nothing too serious. They are on art and lifestyle and are easy to read,” he said. “To survive, bookshops must have a niche. Xinhua bookshops are losing customers every day, with their bad service and poor selections of books.”
Liang Mei, a student from Shenzhen browsing the shelves, said that she first read books in electronic form. “If I really like them, I buy them. That is what most young people do. Most people rent apartments now and have to move. Where do you store so many books and what do you do with them when you move?”
Photos by courtesy of Fangsuo