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‘No, I am not crazy.’ A Shanghai bookseller celebrates women, defies naysayers



In an age when the printed page is widely considered a dead end, an independent bookstore specializing in the needs of women is opening in downtown Shanghai and drawing considerable curiosity.

“‘Who are your investors? Are you doing this to fulfill a dream? Is your rent really cheap?’ Many people ask me these questions,” former financier Wang Xia told Shanghai Daily. “Many of my friends simply think I have gone crazy.”

Wang calls her shop SheLibrary, or Xin Chao Books in Chinese.

“Nobody believes opening a bookstore is a viable business anymore, but I do,” she said. “I haven’t lost my mind; neither am I simply pursing a childhood dream.”

She did have a childhood dream of someday having her own cozy study for reading. Indeed, Xin Chao means “warm nest.”

Now in her late 40s, Wang was born in a remote town in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of northwestern China, with her closest neighbor living kilometers away. All she had for company were her sister and her books.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a private space for you, your books and your best pals?” she said, recalling her childhood dream.

Wang worked in the finance industry in Shanghai for nearly 20 years. She first considered opening a bookstore in 2017 but hesitated when friends suggested it was a losing proposition. For the past three years, she worked part-time with the Fan Deng Readers’ Club, operated by a company that set a goal of having its 3 million members read 50 books a year. Wang quit that job earlier this year.

Her bookstore’s second floor hosts six private “cozy corners,” while the third floor has a special area reserved for Wang’s favorite book — the Chinese classic “A Dream of Red Mansions.” Different versions of the 18th-century novel are displayed, along with other books, journals and merchandise related to it.

Her other favorites — books written by the Bronte sisters, Eileen Chang and Yang Jiang — are on the first-floor shelves reserved for books by women writers. Other shelves include books about women and books for women.

“If I were just a dreamer, I would have opened a bookstore themed on ‘A Dream of Red Mansions,’” she said. “In fact, that was the original plan. But I am a realistic dreamer.”

Her “realistic” confidence comes from the rising demand of women for spiritual sustenance, from her part-time work experience with the readers’ club, and from the current success stories of other innovative bookstores.

JD.com, one of the country’s biggest e-commerce platforms, released a survey on women’s reading habits and trends last year through its JD Big Data Research Institute. It showed that women bought 7.6 books on average in 2018, more than men. It also showed that book sales from women grew more quickly than those of men between 2016 and 2018.

Top authors on the lists of Chinese women are children’s book writers like Yang Hongying and Cao Wenxuan, novelists like Edgar Snow, Keigo Higashino and Liu Cixin, and non-fiction authors like American hedge-fund manager Ray Dalio.

In 2013, a women’s bookstore was reported to be in the works by a well-established chain in Shanghai, but it turned out to be a female-themed shop rather than one designed especially for women. A chain store executive told the media at the time that the shop needed a theme to help sales but didn’t want to narrow its focus to target customers.

That doesn’t mean China has no authentic women’s bookstores.

Lady Book Salon, which first opened in Beijing in 2007, now has eight branches across the nation. Unlike similar female-oriented bookstores in Europe and the US that highlight feminist themes and books, Lady Book Salon’s owner once told the media that such an idea doesn’t work well in China.

Wang takes the basic concept for SheLibrary and goes further.

“It’s a women’s bookstore, not a feminist bookstore,” she stressed. “Or, rather, I want to stay away from that theme, especially in Shanghai, where some may say women are really tough.”

Whether women are on the tough or weak side in the city is debatable, she said. But her focus is on less controversial and more pragmatic themes catering to women’s anxieties at different ages.

“When young, there are concerns and pressure about studies and getting married,” she told me. “Then, at an older age, it’s the balance between work and family. A young woman like you can’t yet imagine how difficult it is for women at critical points of their lives.”

She added, “I think we can turn to books and literature, or more broadly, culture, aesthetics and spiritual sustenance, to try to achieve inner peace and balance. It’s a pity that fewer people enjoy the pleasure of reading literature, and we can’t expect that trend to change any time soon. However, we can find other ways to enjoy literature and beauty in life through social events.”

Her plan is to have daily events of all kinds — poetry readings, immersive theater, book clubs, handicraft workshops, health lectures and even dating events.

A recent event was a play reading of “84, Charing Cross Road,” adapted from Helene Hanff’s book of the same name that chronicles her 20 years of long-distance correspondence with the bookstore’s chief buyer. The book was turned into a stage play and a film.

“Do you remember the last real letter — not an e-mail or WeChat message — that you wrote and sent?” Wang asked about a dozen attendees at the event.

Activities will be the core of her business strategy — a membership system. An annual membership fee of 999 yuan (US$153) offers the privileges of attending events for free, booking private rooms and buying books at a discount.

“The store will make a profit, and only by making a profit can my store and the industry survive,” she explained.

SheLibrary (Xin Chao Books)

Address: Unit 5110, Bldg 5,

10 Jianguo Rd M.