Art and Design books take center stage at Page One in Sanlitun. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]
Beijing's English-speaking bibliophiles have been known to complain. Much English text in the capital has had trouble reaching the masses, or the masses have had trouble reaching it. Page One in a Guomao shopping mall was Beijing's first fully accomplished English bookstore, but its underground location definitely affects its visibility and accessibility. The newly opened Sanlitun branch stakes out new territory in the heart of Sanlitun, Beijing's hottest shopping locale, filling in the literary hole in the fashion-dominated area.
Since last month's soft opening of the store, Page One in Sanlitun seems to have the magnetism required to fill the store with customers. For now, it's what people expect a good bookstore to be - a pleasant environment filled with a well-chosen variety of texts.
The soft opening stage gives the Page One team time to iron out problems and prepare their literary events schedule. Also, the accompanying Woodhouse Café is still unfinished and will not start serving lattes until the grand opening.
At that time, Page One Sanlitun will also become the city's first 24-hour bookstore - on weekends at least. The average book buyer may not need to buy Jane Austen at 4:53 a.m., but there's no denying that Sanlitun club kids can stay out until the sun comes up. At 5:12 a.m., a book on the works of M. C. Escher may not sober them up, but it will certainly add depth to the process.
Prior to Page One, Beijing's large Chinese bookstores made an admirable effort to supply an array of English literature to those who sought it, though their selections unsurprisingly leaned toward the mainstream. Alongside expensive coffees, boutique-style shops such as The Bookworm or Trends Lounge offer more specialized book selections, but they are obviously limited by space. The impressive two-story size of the Sanlitun Page One houses a wide variety of books and merchandise in a cozily modern environment.
Catering to English speakers, 70 percent of the store's 100,00 plus books are in English. Chinese readers can indulge in the remaining book selection, which includes texts printed in both traditional and simplified characters.
"We are a bilingual store," shrugged store manager Sally Sun, when confronted with the lack of books in other languages.
Upstairs is where most of the books are kept, including impressive sections on travel, money matters and classics. A bloated section labeled Food and Beverage consists of no less than 14 bookcases. The Children and Young Adult sections are unparalleled in Beijing, a boon to Beijing's expat youngsters and families.
Titles considered too sensitive or saucy for China may be accessible in smaller Beijing bookstores, but not at Page One. Sorry, everyone, no "Fifty Shades of Grey" here.
Page One's chosen focus is centered squarely on the visual arts. Arty tomes that celebrate graffiti, company logos, modern architecture and 17th-century masters dominate the ground-floor entrance level. Coco Chanel and Warhol are clearly represented. People mill around displays of huge format coffee table books, browsing their bright, glossy pages.
All the books, whether covering Baroque art or eco design in this context seem completely contemporary. The design of the store matches its contents: Elegantly modern wooden tables and shelves showcase the books. The store is welcoming, as bookstores should be, with many books deliberately positioned to entice fingers to peek behind their covers. Readers who want to browse books more thoroughly will have to do so on their feet, as the store provides no seating.
Book prices, according to Sun, can be expected to be slightly pricier than in their country of publication. Netizens have noted that Page One books can be notably cheaper than at other bookstores in Beijing, but Sun acknowledged that others may also be priced the same or more than the competition.
The Sanlitun store's staff of 30 is relatively new, which may excuse them for not yet being completely familiar with the terrain. A request for books to learn Chinese required a discussion between several staffers. A short hunt ensued before discovering the surprisingly small section. For now, only six staff members can speak English, which is unfortunately out of line with the books being sold. The store is still recruiting employees, so hopefully the future staff will be more proficient in English.
Although the store feels modern, it remains a traditional bookstore, waging war against Kindles and other e-readers.
"It's a feeling, you know," opined Sun. "You can feel the books. You can really touch them. I have an iPad, but I never use it to read. Especially for the art and design titles and children's titles. Children like the paper and like books that can surprise them in ways that e-books can't. We have a lot of pop-up books, sound books and touch-and-feel books. E-readers can't do that."
In addition to the onslaught of books in the store, considerable floor space is given to quirky and hip merchandise which bears little connection to reading per se. Manager Sun notes that the Sanlitun area's natural focus is on lifestyle products, so she finds no disconnect in a bookstore that also sells jewelry, decorative plates, Lomo cameras or pillows. In fact, she's right: The well-chosen product selection somehow seems only to enhance the book-buying experience.
Page One, Sanlitun Village south. 15 minutes walk east from Dongsishitiao exit B.