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.