The Last Memo

The Bleak House Books family (L to R) Albert, Aggie, Ysabelle, Angel, Maylene, Jenny, Ida, Charlie (miss you, Rachel)

How does one go about shuttering a happy, thriving and successful bookshop? This is a question that has been plaguing me for some time now. 

From the very beginning, my goal for Bleak House Books has been a modest one: to build a viable, self-sustaining, community-oriented bookshop on my terms. Four years later I can say that I have achieved that goal, thanks in part to the persistence and efforts of my wonderful bookshop family and also to the support of our readers and the community. 

So it is with great sadness that I need to announce that Bleak House Books will be closing. The last day the bookshop will be open to the public will be Friday, 15 October 2021, and the last day we will fulfill online orders placed with us will be Friday, 1 October 2021

The decision to close the bookshop follows another equally painful and sad decision, which is that my family and I will be leaving Hong Kong in the near future. As much as I would prefer not to have to disclose this in a public announcement, I believe I have a responsibility to the people who support the work that we do here at Bleak House Books to be honest and transparent about the reason for why I need to close the bookshop. 

The backdrop to these developments is, of course, politics. To be sure, what my wife Jenny, my kids, and I do in our daily lives is not overtly political. Jenny is a university professor, I sell books, and the kids are primary school students. But as George Orwell once remarked, ‘[i]n our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics”. All issues are political issues.’ This observation is as true today as it was in 1940 when Orwell first made it. And given the state of politics in Hong Kong, Jenny and I can no longer see a life for ourselves and our children in this city, at least in the near future. 

Some of you might be wondering why I decided to close the bookshop rather than sell or find someone else to run it. There’s no single answer to that question. Bleak House Books is an independent bookshop. And like any other independent bookshop, it has its own unique character, voice and mission. It is my preference to keep it that way. Also, to hand the reins over now after only four years of bookselling seems a bit premature to me. There are many things I still want to do and say, and of course, many more books I’d still like to share with everyone. 

My immediate concern for the next month-and-a-half will be keeping Bleak House Books open until the very last minute of the very last day for our readers, our community and Hong Kong. We have some fun stuff planned, so it’s not all doom and gloom from here on out. 

I recently put in a large order for new books — our last — that has brought to the bookshop some old favorites, special selections from our resident and far-flung bookworms, and also the random selection from Ye Olde Bookseller for which Angel, my trusty shop manager, will invariably tell me: ‘but no one’s going to buy that, boss!’ We will also have one last poetry reading with our good friends at Cha literary journal, the theme for which is ‘LOVE’.  And maybe I’ll finally break down and buy a beer fridge so I can have the proverbial ‘last beer’ with anyone who wants to have one with me at the bookshop before it closes. 

There will, however, be no farewell party, and no clearance sale. For those books we have left at the bookshop and in storage after the last day we will donate most of them to any independent bookshop or local institution that wants them. We will make sure our Pickwick Club subscribers and readers who have placed special orders with us get the books they are supposed to get. And we will return all the books given to us for sale on consignment back to their rightful owners.  

Having started this announcement with a question, it is perhaps fitting to end it with one as well, which is: what will happen to Bleak House Books after this? And my answer is: ‘I don’t know exactly’. We are living in uncertain, even dangerous times and for those reasons it is very hard to plan ahead. What I can promise everyone is that this is not the end. It is not the end of Bleak House Books. It is not the end of our journey. It is not the end of anything really. 

I was asked by a friend what I will miss most about Hong Kong when I leave. Strangely I couldn’t articulate to her what those things might be even though I knew I would miss a lot of things about this city. The truth is I don’t have the mental energy to ‘miss’ anything about Hong Kong yet because my focus is what I can do for the city here and now. Maybe there will come a time when I can spend a lazy afternoon thinking and reminiscing about what life was like in Hong Kong during this 大時代. But that time is not now. There is still a lot of work to be done and I intend to do as much of it as I can before my time here is up. 香港人,加油!

Coming Up For Air: Sometimes You Want to Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name

by Albert Wan

Originally published in Ming Pao on 12 April 2019 and reprinted here in full with the permission of the publisher

I know about a magical bookshop in Hong Kong. It’s on the island-side, so you can get there easily by your preferred mode of public transportation, but the best part of the journey there is the part that takes place on foot.

If you’re going by MTR, your first instinct when you exit the station may be to melt into the crowds. Don’t do that. There is a lot to see and you’ll miss it if you play it cool and join the herd.


Once you get your bearings, find a safe spot to plant yourself so you don’t get run over and stop to look around. You will catch glimpses of both old and new Hong Kong. On one street you might see traditional Hong Kong-style cafes serving familiar Cantonese fare adjacent to their newer, sleeker cousins of varying cuisines. On another, you might find a range of specialty shops — think handkerchiefs and plastic tarps — opened in an age when it was neither hip nor optional to operate such establishments.


The streets are narrow enough so that you know they weren’t designed with the automobile age in mind. Traffic signals are few and far between. Pedestrian crossings exist by way of subtle negotiations between the driver and walker rather than by marked signs.


I hope you’re in decent shape because you’ll have to negotiate a few steep stairways to get to the bookshop. Walking is serious, often sweaty business here in Hong Kong.


Once you get past the steep climbs, you will discover that the crowds and cars and bustle have all magically disappeared. Stretching in front of you will be one of several streets, almost certainly deserted and so quiet you will be able to hear yourself think again. Rather than busy storefronts and stalls you will see street art of the edgy and not-so-edgy variety.


You are close now. Walking down these eerily quiet streets you will feel like you’re floating down a jetway to a plane that is about to take you to your favourite vacation destination.


The bookshop is nestled at the end of a dead-end pedestrian side street, tucked away in an airy but cozy corner with chairs and tables arranged nicely in front. The corner is formed by a large stone and cement wall painted in a shade of pink. The wall shores up a large park that looms over the bookshop and gives it a kind of sanctuary effect one is more likely to find in a temple or a church than at a retail space.


When you step inside the bookshop you feel like you’ve stepped inside a home and not a store. It is the home of a person who not only loves books but also loves all the little things in life; ones that we take for granted all the time.


Look straight ahead and you’ll see a nicely appointed kitchen — coffee is made fresh to order — complete with a full size refrigerator in powder blue. Look to your right and you’ll see what might best be described as the ultimate picnic spread, not of food, but books, all personally curated by the owner and carefully set out. If you’re lucky the owner might be around but even if she isn’t you will find yourself in good hands with one of the bookshop’s many readers-turned-managers.


At first glance the shop might seem small. But there’s a pocket staircase leading up to a second floor. Mount it and you will find yourself in another room lined with more books and also a sunny seating area that overlooks the street below. An idyllic spot for reading, people watching, or both.


If you haven’t already guessed, I am describing the bookshop that is Mount Zero Books in Sheung Wan. It is the kind of bookshop that perhaps Ye Olde Bookseller would have opened up had he sold books in his past life. More importantly, however, it is the kind of bookshop that makes life worth living.


Today the resident bookworms at Bleak House Books will be “taking over” Mount Zero Books for the day so that we can finally experience the magic of Mount Zero Books for ourselves. And you, Dear Reader, are cordially invited to join us so that you too can see what the fuss is all about. We promise you won’t be disappointed.

Bookstore Owner ‘Murdered’ (New York Magazine; July 9-16, 1979)

by Carol Brener

I have just made my debut as a cover corpse. I did once have a death mask made, but that was small potatoes. Now, on bookshelves across the country, I lie with a large kitchen knife sticking up out of my blood-drenched blouse. I am smartly dressed, befitting the model murdered in Octagon House, one of three classic Cape Cod mysteries of the thirties by Phoebe Atwood Taylor being reissued in paperback by Foul Play Press ($4.50 each). When I asked who killed her/me, I was told, “Many people had reason.” I have since read the book, and I/she deserved it.

“Brener: Foul Play gives Murder Ink. owner a taste of death.

The other two corpses in the series are artist Edward Gorey and Dilys Winn, founder of Murder Ink. (the bookstore that I now own) and Edgar winner for the best-selling Murder Ink, the Mystery Reader’s Companion.

Gorey was “stabbed” with an elegant silver dagger while in a rocking chair. Dilys has tumbled to the bottom of the cellar steps, a neat puddle of blood beside her head. I repose on a level garage floor. (I was fairly comfortable: A heater was nearby, and I sleep on an extra-firm mattress.)

Photo courtesy of www.ernstreichl.org

Lew Merrim, our cheerfully macabre photographer, made “my” murder weapon by sawing a kitchen knife off at an angle and soldering it to a flat metal plate, which was taped in place on my chest. My genuine 1930s blouse was then slit to fit and slipped over the knife and the area bloodied up with paint artfully splattered to cover any sign of the gray tape. In the interest of authenticity, I wore a bra and full slip, garments consigned to the back of a drawer some years ago; an innocuous gray skirt; period seamed stockings bought specially for the shooting; and my pet black pumps. I was not pleased to hear Dilys chirp, “Where did you get those dreadful shoes?”

The three Taylor books, with their cover corpses, are lined up smack at eye level in my store, but no one recognizes me or my cohorts. Elma Lipscomb, however, who cleans my apartment, knew me the instant she saw the cover. I am told she carries the book on all her jobs. No one messes with Elma these days.

BHB’s copy of Octagon House with Carol Brener as ‘murder victim’

Coming Up For Air: First Kill All the Lawyers (January 2019)

Below is our January 2019 edition of ‘Coming Up For Air’, a monthly column we write for Ming Pao’s English language section, reprinted here in its entirety with the permission of the folks at Ming Pao.

【明報專訊】A few months ago I received a letter at the bookshop. It had all the trappings of an important document: London return address, personalised stationery, heavy stock paper. As I opened it I joked to Rachel our shop manager that it was probably a lawsuit. Luckily, I was wrong, but not by much.

The letter came from a large law firm and warned us not to sell a certain book. The book at issue was a newly released biography about a very rich and prominent individual who had at one point in time dated the likes of Paris Hilton but who is now considered a fugitive from justice.

The letter claimed that the biography was defamatory and full of lies. It did not mention of course that the biography had passed the vetting process of one of the world’s largest publishers, or that, at the time the letter was written, the book was already the subject of several talks that were scheduled to take place at prominent venues around Hong Kong, including the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and the University of Hong Kong.

The letter called on us to do two things: to avoid the book as if it were the plague — that meant we couldn’t stock it, sell it, distribute it, write about it, etc., — and to reply in writing with a pledge that we would avoid the book as if it were the plague. If we failed to do either of those things we would be sued.

My first reaction upon receiving this letter was to toss it in the trash. There was zero chance the book would end up on our shelves. Biographies about shady moguls are not the kinds of titles we stock at our bookshop, no matter how salacious or explosive their content.

Writing and sending threatening letters is also common practice among lawyers and I knew from past experience that not all such letters warrant a response, either because their claims have no merit or because it would never ripen into a full-blown lawsuit.

Nor did I want to start down the slippery slope of self-censorship. Even though I had no plans and never would have plans to sell this biography that was causing all this stir I wanted to leave the door open to the prospect of changing my mind. The last thing I wanted was to over-react to what may very well have been empty threats and box myself in to the point of no-return.

Lastly, I didn’t want to give the lawyer whose job it was to track down and threaten fledgling, indie booksellers like ourselves the satisfaction of a reply. Granted, my reply (if I sent one) probably wouldn’t have gone to the lawyer whose name appeared at the end of the letter but to one of his lowly, debt-ridden, nameless associates who did most of his dirty work.

But then I started thinking about our bookshop and all the time and effort everyone here has spent to make it into the special place we think it is today. It would be the height of irresponsibility if I put all that at risk just because I couldn’t get over my own feelings of anger and disbelief at having been singled out by this law firm.

And then my thoughts turned to the time I was a lawyer, all the demand letters I’ve sent or received during that time, and how important it was for me to receive a response to or follow up on these letters — mostly because it was the responsible thing to do, even if the end result was more litigation. So if the lawyer who handled this case was worth his salt he would make us feel the pain for not replying to his letter.

So at the end I decided to write him the response he wanted but on my terms. Here it is in full:

We are in receipt of the attached letter. We have no interest in your client, his life or any books that have been or will be written about him, including the one referenced in your letter. That means we will not waste our time or money to order or stock the book referenced in your letter or sell or distribute it in any way. Nor do we have any pre-sale orders for the book since we don’t sell it at our bookshop and have no plans to sell it. Hope that gives your client the peace of mind he is trying to buy.

So who won when all was said and done? The lawyer and his client received the commitment they demanded and the book hasn’t reared its ugly head in our bookshop. But they’ve also left us alone since then. No more threats. And thank god no lawsuits.

It is hard though not to think about what might have happened had we never received the letter. Was the threat of litigation all it took to scare regular folks like ourselves into submission? Would the book have made its way into the bookshop had it not been for the letter, even as a used book (not that anyone has tried to sell or give it to us)? Hard to tell. But one thing’s for certain: another book will be published, someone will be unhappy with it, and there will be no shortage of lawyers for this person to hire who will do their best to make this book disappear.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.