In September I had the great honour of attending the second Chengdu International Bookstore Forum in China. The city of Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province and in 2010 it was the first city in Asia to be named as a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO. Chengdu has a population of 14.4 million people. It's the home of the mouth tingling Sichuan pepper, hotpots, and chilli - a lot of chilli.
It's also the home of Fang Suo Commune, one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, which was playing host to the international forum: Bookstore Power. With the theme of Bookstore & Urban Lifestyle, a group of booksellers from the UK, Italy, Brazil, the USA, Japan, Taiwan, and within China came together for the three day conference. We were there at the invitation of Mr Mao Jihong, one of the founders of the Fang Suo Commune.
Fang Suo sells books, gifts, stationary, exquisite clothes (Mr Mao is one of China's most successful fashion designers), and coffee, and also includes exhibition and lecture spaces. There are four branches located in Guangzhou, Chongqing, Qingdao, and Chengdu. To say it is a just bookstore is an understatement. The Guangzhou and Chengdu branches have both won "World Retail Awards Store Design of the Year". Fang Suo Commune Chengdu was among the top 14 most beautiful bookstores in the world as listed by Architectural Digest, 2016.
But Mr Mao wasn't the only participant representing an official 'most beautiful bookstore in the world'. One of the key speakers was Fabio Herz from Livraria Cultura Brazil. The San Paulo branch of Brazil's biggest bookstore chain was rebuilt from the original Brazilian Cultural Library and was also recently voted one of the 14 most beautiful bookstores in the world. Fabio revealed that the San Paulo bookstore has 10,000 customers per day.
U.S. bookseller Katherine Orphan, from The Last Bookstore, shared the story of this unique bookstore, which sells new and used books and has become a tourist destination in the downtown area of Los Angeles, especially after it was voted one of the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world. The book themed installation pieces in-store are amazing!
While the narratives of each of the bookshops were very interesting, probably one of the more unusual was presented by Alberto Rivolta who spoke about the beginnings of Feltrinelli - an Italian bookstore chain that was opened by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in 1955. It is now a very successful multichannel business that includes a publishing house, music shops, and 120 book shops of all sizes located throughout Italy - some of which include restaurants under their RED brand (Read Eat Dream).
In 1957, Giangiacomo founded the publishing house Feltrinelli Editore. One of his first publications was Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and then The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi de Leopardi. An article online describes him as an "enthusiastic publisher and left wing activist" who died at the age of 45, apparently killed by his own explosives on his way to a clandestine operation. But his legacy for discovering, publishing, and selling the best in avant garde writing continues today.
Tamara MacFarlane owner of Tales on Moon Lane in London was an inspiring and generous speaker who shared her passion for children's books and talked about the importance of diversity and inclusivity in books for all young readers. Her bookshop has won the Children's Bookseller of the Year 2008 and 2011, and was the winner of London's Independent Bookshop of the Year & Children's Bookseller of the Year in 2017. Tamara's outreach program into schools was equally impressive! She is also the author of the Amazing Esme series of books for children. (Tamara is the kind of bookseller who makes flying for 10 1/2 hours completely worth it!)
Mark Kiessling, co-founder of Do You Read Me?! from Berlin spoke about how bookstores shape urban lifestyle. His bookstore specialises in magazines in a small but perfectly designed space. As a graphic designer, Mark's presentation was visually striking, inspiring, and left us with a great takeaway about his beloved city - Berlin: poor but sexy.
Fang Suo Commune is not the only vast and extraordinary bookstore in China. Qian Xiaohua founder of Librairie Avant-Garde bookstores was also a guest speaker. The Nanjing based shop, acknowledged as one of the Top 10 bookstores in the world by National Geographic in 2015, is a former underground carpark and bomb shelter that has undergone an amazing transformation. It is so large that at a recent event, 8000 people turned up for a standing room only author appearance (they sold 6000 copies of the author's book which he also signed!).
Other booksellers represented the best in large and small innovative bookshops in Taiwan and Japan.
All speakers were impressed by the design of Fang Suo Commune bookstore, especially we small booksellers! Built in 2015, and designed by Chu Chih-Kang, it is just over 5000m2.
Architect Chu Chih-Kang took inspiration from the life of a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk and scholar who resided in Daci Temple. The Daci Temple still exists and Fang Suo Commune is located close to it. Chih-Kang had the idea of creating a modern underground sutra depository which was a private place to store all kinds of knowledge such books, and letters in ancient China.
The below ground level of a high end CBD shopping precinct has been designed as a 'knowledge depository' and features a variety of natural materials, such as concrete, copper, iron, and sycamore. Multi-level mezzanines, wooden staircases, a catwalk, and beautiful shelves combine to create a dramatic, almost Brutalist but inviting interior. Chu Chik-Kang also used the elements of planet diagram and constellations for his grand vision.
Chu Chik-Kang said "Fang Suo Book Store not only carries cultures and living attitudes, but also provides customers a place for inner peace and a door of hope."
As an Australian bookseller, I have always looked to the independent booksellers of the US and the UK for inspiration, but after visiting China I now see Asia as a place where some of the most exciting and inspiring booksellers are creating the best bookshops.
Fiona Stager, Avid Reader and Where the Wild Things Are