This particular Owspace is definitely the most photogenic bookshop I visited this time. It’s located in a brand new shopping mall in one of the cultural centres of Beijing. The bookshop has three branches and they have become “cultural landmarks” in recent years. They’re gathering places for authors, directors and artists, as well as young people from all walks of life. It’s a place to “escape from everyday life, fuel up your spirit and meet like-minded people”, quoting from Douban.com. It incorporates books, magazines, designer stationery and gifts, as well as a meeting space and cafe. I had a look at their events page; there are lectures, music concerts, film screenings and discussions, and meetings with new book authors.
It’s known as a bookshop but its main purpose is not to sell books. Everyone knows that Amazon is the main seller of books now (but notably magazines, hence the advantage of WHSmith). It will be a struggle for physical bookshops if they sell books only. People who love physical books and bookshops might be sincerely sad about good bookshops closing down and criticise online sellers, but they probably won’t pay more for something in bookshops when they know Amazon offers it £5 cheaper. (Remember what happened when Waitrose offered customers free coffees.)
Bookshops can’t change people’s behaviour but they can change themselves. Owspace is a place to sit, maybe for talking to friends, maybe for having a rest, maybe for feeling stylish and cultured. It has to keep the appearance of a bookshop for the “stylish and cultured” reason. It rents out its much-sought-after space for cultural events. I won’t be surprised if it starts to host weddings in the future. It sells designer products with high price tags. It does not make money from selling books. I don’t think they make a lot of money selling coffee even. The bookcases and the coffee aroma are almost the decoration for this space. Look at its name, it’s a space, not a shop. I wonder if UK bookshops can do something similar to stay alive.
I love the look of its coffee shop – the combination of raw concrete, dark wood furniture, industrial style lighting and green plants. I might copy it if I ever have the chance to have a say on a coffee shop interior.
There are also book recommendations on their website each week. Some of the books look really interesting. But I also noticed the fact that there were a lot of translated literature in the shop, especially from English and Japanese languages. I don’t read English books in Chinese, unless it’s to study the translation, so I didn’t buy anything in the end. However, foreign literature is definitely popular in Chinese market.
There are three Owspace bookshops in Beijing. We visited another branch in another shopping mall. It’s decorated in a cleaner way. I loved the “Being Blank” space it provided, which was outside the bookshop, in the middle of the floor among other shops, for shoppers to sit and rest.
I didn’t think to take any photos of this second branch either (shame on me!). But I did manage to find a few good ones from the internet.
Here are maps of the two Owspace mentioned above:
I thought about the bookshops in the UK that I’ve seen. So far I haven’t found one that’s similar in style to Owspace.
There are a lot of stylish and old second-hand bookshops around the country, like those ancient ones in London. Some of them have a smell of history as soon as you enter, probably from mouldy pages. The space is usually cramped with tall bookcases packed all the way to the ceilings, narrow corridors and no space to sit down or even stand to read. The shop owner is usually buried behind a desk, peeping out from his corner through gaps of book piles. Barter Books in Alnwick is one of the best second-hand bookshops and is full of character. It’s unusually spacious and has plenty comfy chairs (and a real fire). It also has a very atmospheric cafe. I love walking up and down between corridors and bookcases in these bookshops. But to be honest, I hardly ever buy second-hand books.
Waterstones is usually big, well-stocked with a range of subjects, after rebranding from a few years ago, more stylish too. A lot of them have a Costa Café. But it has a commercial feeling to me. Probably because the prominent book recommendations are fiction on popular books chart. Or maybe it has something to do with the decoration. Going to Waterstones is not a particularly relaxing or enjoyable experience – I feel stressed for the authors of the books on the ground floor. Professional photographers feel annoyed because everyone takes photo with phones now and everyone becomes a “photographer”. Is it not the same for writers for hundreds of years? Everyone can pick up a pen / computer to write. However, only good ones make a mark in the history. Anyway, Waterstones in Newcastle is placed in a really good location, right in the city centre where I often meet up with people. So I go there mainly when I wait.
Blackwell’s definitely has an academic feeling. I don’t see life size anatomical skeletons anywhere else. It’s right next to Newcastle Uni campus in the city centre. I remember buying a lot of expensive course books there (some academic books are on sale in a basket from time to time, with stickers of £2 or so on them). It also has an art department which is quite special. I once found some living moss in a bag. But it’s usually so quiet, I feel like all the staff are staring at my back because they have nothing else to do (which I’m sure is just my imagination).
CLC is a Christian bookshop, tucked in a corner behind the Laing Art Gallery in the city centre. It’s spacious, quiet and full of light. I like their cards collection for many occasions with bible verses in. I have to say this is the one bookshop where I actually bought a lot of books.
And then there are book areas in department stores, all looking a bit pathetic, “I’m sorry that I’m not making money for the department store and I’m ashamed that I’m taking up this space”. And magazine shelves in supermarkets look as gossipy and tasteless as they possibly can.
Last but not least, there is WHSmith on every high street in every UK city and town selling just about everything mentioned above. It’s cheap and cheerful, with Mary Berry, garden DIY and world atlas smiling at you on the first display table with £5 stickers on all year round. It’s multi-functional – books and magazines, maps, soft toys, stationary, office appliances, e-book readers, food and drink (in a fridge not Cafe), photo albums and diaries, art and craft, very importantly, a post office. It’s the only bookshop where I see people queue and pay for things.
Just a little reflection on UK bookshops :)
All photos were taken by me unless stately otherwise.