Coming Up For Air: A Very, Merry San Po Kong Christmas (December 2018)

Below is our December 2018, holiday 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.

Coming Up For Air: A Very Merry, San Po Kong Christmas

by Albert Wan, Jenny Smith and Rachel Parnham
December 14, 2018

【明報專訊】What do the winter holidays mean to you? Last year at this time we were still getting things set up at our bookshop in San Po Kong. Rachel, our awesome shop manager, had just started working at Bleak House Books. We still had a lot of shelves to fill and books to price. And we had just hosted our first ever event complete with a plastic “Charlie Brown tree” from Ikea.

This year things are a bit different. Our shelves are now well-stocked with a carefully curated selection of new as well as used books. We have hosted our fair share of events from school field trips to poetry readings to book launches. And the dinky tree that we bought for last year’s inaugural event makes a return appearance, this time serving as both holiday decor and as the Bleak House Books “local interest” tree.

This year we also decided to have a little fun for the holidays. As bookshop employees we have ready access to a lot of literature written by a wide range of authors but we rarely get to write any of our own. So in what we hope will be the start of an annual holiday tradition, we are treating everyone to some home-made poetry and jingles, Bleak House Books-style!

Although each piece is penned by a different member of the Bleak House Books family, we decided not to attribute authorship to any of them. This is because the last time anyone here wrote a piece of fun, nonsensical prose, we were all a lot younger and there was, frankly, less on the line. Needless to say those days are long gone. Folks who want to know who wrote which poem will just have to engage in some guesswork. But we don’t think that will be too hard.

So without further ado we bring you A Very, Merry San Po Kong Christmas, a joint production of Bleak House Books and its three resident bookworms!

The 12 Days of Christmas (Hong Kong Edition)

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me|
A char siu way too salty

On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two jade rings

And a char siu way too salty
On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three hairy gourds,
Two jade rings,
And a char siu way too salty.

[By now we all know the lyrics and the song is, to be honest, a bit tedious so let’s pretend we’ve cycled through all the days and are now at day 12]

Twelve fish balls floating,
Eleven mooncakes moulding,
Ten ducks a-roasting,
Nine butchers chopping,
Eight eggs a-pickling,
Seven fish a-sunning,
Six screens a-glowing,
Five steaming baos,
Four suckling pigs,
Three hairy gourds,
Two jade rings,
And a char siu way too salty.

The Perfect Gift

The night before Christmas, lights were off at Bleak House
One creature was stirring and it was a mouse;
She scuttled through the stacks and the shelves
Half-empty, ransacked of books by the elves;
While the folk of Hong Kong were asleep catching zees
Sneaky elves placed book-shaped gifts ‘neath their trees.

Christmas at the Mall

In late November the displays appear
giant Snoopys, animatronic reindeer

peppermint, cranberry, eggnog, nut toffee
seasonal flavor shots enhance the coffee

Holiday jazz standards get piped in on a loop
Muzak more outmoded than shark fin soup

shoppers hunt crackers, tinsel & gingerbread
CFL lighting makes them look like the living dead

Vinyl cling candy canes are pressed on with care
Cheap plastic pine garlands are strewn everywhere

fake glittery snow dusts pine boughs of foam,
Santa’s toboggan is done up in chrome

Christmas at the mall is slightly off-kilter
but that can be fixed with an instagram filter

This ersatz winter wonderland is uncanny, unhealthy
But Christmas is coming so let’s take a selfie!

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Coming Up For Air: Grey, Grizzled But Still Going (November 2018)

Below is our November 2018 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.

Coming Up For Air: Grey, Grizzled but Still Going

by Albert Wan
November 16, 2018

【明報專訊】This past October we quietly celebrated our first birthday. It was around this time last year when we signed our lease to become what we jokingly refer to as the world’s first and only 27th floor bookshop. Since then we’ve learned a thing or two about the book-selling business.

One is that appearances matter. Before we opened our bookshop we believed that as long as we stocked good books — crudely defined as literature and non-fiction that has stood or will stand the test of time — sales will follow. To borrow from the great anonymous prophet of Iowa: “If you stock it, they will come.”

To a great extent that is still true. Good books sell themselves. Period. Full stop.

But being on the 27th floor also means that the bookshop is, for better or worse, largely hidden from the gaze of the passing pedestrian — the all-important marker of retail success, or failure.

We realised very early on then that there was no getting around social media as a platform to promote the bookshop and our books. Call it bookselling in the age of screens and high rents, but it’s become a core part of who we are and what we do. We have become social media junkies.

If you’ve seen our Facebook or Instagram posts, however, you know that we don’t take the “kitchen sink” approach to social media.

Rather, when we come across a book we want to feature on social media either because it has interesting content or nice cover art, or, ideally, both, we work hard to create an eye-catching and well-written post that we hope will evoke in our followers the same warm and fuzzy feeling we had when we first came across the book at issue.

To us it is about featuring the book in its entirety, rather than just, say, its cover, which can be a very easy thing to do in today’s age of high definition cameras and Instagram filters. It’s no surprise then that the copy in our posts has become lengthier and more detailed as we’ve tried to strike the right balance between aesthetics and content. A caption we wrote for a recent post featuring the English translation of Hsu Hsia-k’o’s(徐霞客)— China’s Thoreau — travel diaries came in at 127 words!

Another lesson we’ve learned is the importance of “showing up”. Sometimes we go days on end and don’t see another soul walk, or even waft, into the bookshop. Even so we continue to show up, plough through our backlog of unpriced books, and wait for the next customer to appear. The tide always changes so that we will start receiving visitors at a steady clip. Getting to that point, however, can sometimes be a challenge, physically and mentally.

It helps, of course, to have supportive customers. Once we had a customer visit the bookshop on what was a particularly quiet day. He browsed for a while, picked out a $40 paperback, and paid for it. As he got ready to leave, he said to me “you will sometimes have days like this, but when you do, just know that there are people out there who know what you’re doing for the community.” Even though he ended up buying a book, I secretly think he came to the bookshop just to send us that message. It was like manna from heaven, and I’ll never forget it.

Starting Bleak House Books is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Yes, we’ve had our share of challenges, and I have definitely become more grey and more grizzled. It is hard to imagine life without the bookshop though. To me it represents the perfect combination of labour and literature. Only with the former can one have the latter.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Our ‘Coming Up for Air’ Column for Ming Pao: ‘Striking the Right Balance’

Starting last month Ye Olde Bookseller began writing a monthly column for Ming Pao’s English language section called ‘Coming Up For Air’. For this month’s column — October 2018 — I talk about the challenges of running a community-oriented indie bookshop in an age of increasing political polarization. It is called ‘Striking the Right Balance’, and is reprinted here in its entirety with permission of the folks at Ming Pao.

Coming Up For Air: Striking the Right Balance

by Albert Wan
October 19, 2018

【明報專訊】The word on the street is that independent bookstores are experiencing a renaissance moment of sorts. Perhaps this is the result of screen fatigue. Too much time in front of screens has turned folks into shells of their former selves. The smell and feel of books and the shelves on which they are stored can rejuvenate the senses and restore the balance lost through excessive screen time. Perhaps the renewed interest in indie bookshops stems from the desire to support local businesses instead of large corporate chains or big box stores.

Personally, I think we are seeing more neighbourhood bookshops because there is a public need for them. We live in a time of government-imposed austerity and ever-widening gaps between the rich and the poor. Local governments invest far less than they once did in community projects whose main purpose is to enhance the well-being of the community, and whose success is not tied to the amount of private wealth and profit they create for a select few.

More libraries are reducing their hours or closing altogether. Fewer community spaces — ones where you or I can visit and hang out in without being compelled to buy anything — are being maintained, expanded and built. This is not just happening in Hong Kong. It is a worldwide trend. Independent bookshops can step in to fill at least part of that void.

But what does it mean to be a bookshop that serves the needs of the community? I’ve spoken previously about hosting public events and fostering a welcoming environment where folks from all walks of life can feel comfortable and relaxed hanging out in a space filled with good books and good company. Those are obvious contributions we should make as an indie bookshop as far as we’re concerned, at least in the sense of having to do them. So we try to do them well.

Being an independent bookshop also means having an identity, however. The difficulty lies in forging that identity but also serving the largest cross section of the community that we possibly can. The two can and sometimes do clash.

For example, once we shared an interview of Xiaolu Guo, a Chinese writer. Guo spoke about her dislike of Dickens and his novels and argued that many Anglophone writers were over-rated, but she also praised works by writers such as Germaine Greer, Marguerite Duras, and Roland Barthes.

The interview was conducted by The Guardian, not us, and Guo happened to be a Chinese dissident living in London. Despite all this our post immediately drew the ire of some folks, and we were accused, among other things, of having a “far-left, anti-white, feminist agenda.”

The message implied of course that we were taking sides or trying to advance a political agenda simply because we posted an article written by one of the world’s most respected news organisations. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with being on the left or advancing the cause of women’s rights.

But we see our job as booksellers to go beyond just taking sides in political debates. Of course, we will occasionally enter the fray when we see fit (more on that below). More often than not, however, we think we best serve the needs of the community by being the platform where others can tell their stories, voice their opinions, and find the information they need to wage their own battles.

There are, however, some core values and beliefs that we hold dear as owner-operators of an independent bookshop. We believe in the freedom of speech and the freedom of thought. We believe in human rights. We believe in the dignity of the individual. And we believe, as Orwell famously put it, that “our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have”. Call it the Bleak House Books Bill of Rights if you will.

This is the starting point for every decision we make at Bleak House Books. Every event we host or book we stock needs to support these core principles. In most cases it’s an easy hurdle to clear. But there will be times when we come across something that fails our test, and we will say so. And if that means our bookshop is taking sides in a political debate then we plead guilty.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Our Inaugural ‘Coming Up For Air’ Column for Ming Pao: ‘Will You Be Our Neighbour?’

Starting this month Ye Olde Bookseller will be writing a monthly column for Ming Pao’s English language section. The column will be called Coming Up For Air which comes from George Orwell’s novel of the same name.

I am grateful to Ming Pao for giving me wide latitude in topics I will be able to cover in the column. Obviously the bookshop and its inner workings will see some coverage. But for me that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I hope to use the column to express myself in ways I cannot do at the bookshop (hence the title) — mostly because of time constrains but also because the bookshop is not always the appropriate forum for the personal viewpoints of its owner unless it relates to books and their worth!

Below is our first ‘Coming Up For Air’ column which was published in Ming Pao on September 21, 2018. It is entitled “Will You Be Our Neighbour?”

— Ye Olde Bookseller a.k.a. Albert Wan [Sept. 27, 2018]

Coming Up For Air: Will You Be Our Neighbour?

This is my first column for Ming Pao. I’m a lawyer turned bookseller. Last year my wife and I opened an English language bookshop in Hong Kong called Bleak House Books or 清明堂 in Chinese.

At first we ran the business out of our home which doubled as an office and storage space for our books and comics. We rented stalls at pop up markets, hired an awesome graphic artist to help us design a website for online sales, and wondered how we’d ever be able to afford a storefront in Hong Kong.

Sales were slow at first but business gradually picked up, and we were delighted to discover enthusiasm among Hong Kongers for indie bookshops. In the fall of 2017 we started hunting for a dedicated space for our bookshop.

Enter San Po Kong, a quiet, industrial district in the heart of Kowloon, where we found an amazing space on the 27th floor of an office building. It took us a few months to get wooden shelves installed and to improve the lighting, but finally we had the kind of bookshop we wanted. In January 2018 we officially opened for business and the rest is history.

Since we’ve started Bleak House Books many concerned individuals have wondered how we can possibly compete with Amazon and Book Depository. Obviously we can’t — we try to keep our book prices in the same range as these enormous operations but offering free shipping worldwide and hundreds of thousands of titles aren’t smart business choices for us.

Instead we focus on what we can do: understanding and responding to the needs of our community. Selling books is great, but supporting people who love to read and create literature is by far the most interesting and rewarding part of this gig.

Here are two examples of community activities we have been proud to support. First up, Cha, a literary journal based in Hong Kong and run by the talented and indefatigable Tammy Ho Lai-ming. Cha has hosted several after-hours poetry readings at our shop. The readings are always well-attended and include a diverse mix of serious, academic types and poetry-lovers.

We’ve also just started to host book club meetings. A few weeks ago an awesome book club, Run of Page, took over the shop for a few hours. Run of Page is a running club and book club in one; its members go on a brisk jog before settling down to discuss books. The heat was intense on the late July day Run of Page held its meeting at our bookshop but everyone was still very enthusiastic about the jog which included a jaunt to an old village called Nga Tsin Wai(衙前圍村). The discussion that ensued back at the bookshop was spirited and lively, even after the tough jog.

Local writers are a big part of the community we serve and we do what we can to give them a space and a voice at the bookshop. When a local writer asks us to sell his or her book (that is if we don’t ask them first) we usually say yes. At last count we had around fifteen or so local writers and illustrators whose books we sell at Bleak House Books.

In a nutshell, this is the kind of bookshop we are: welcoming to visit, community-oriented and fiercely independent (more on that in a future column).

A lot has happened since we started Bleak House Books. Of course we’ve bought and sold our fair share of books. But we’ve also gotten to know and become friends with many interesting folks from all different walks of life.

It’s a positive sign. One that tells us indie bookshops can play an important role in building a stronger and more vibrant community. For those who are not so sure or want to test our hypothesis, we invite you to visit an indie bookshop near you. Stay awhile. Talk to those around you. Then report back and tell us if we are really off our rockers.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.