Could “all-in-one” be the best business model for indie bookstores struggling to stay afloat? Recently named one of Lonely Planet’s “World’s Greatest Bookshops,” The Bookworm in Beijing, China (with two offshoot locations in the cities of Chengdu and Suzhou) seems to have one of everything, including the kitchen sink. Alexandra Pearson, The Bookworm’s British-born owner, opened the store in 2005, and has successfully turned it into a book, food, and culture haven for simultaneously promoting English-language books and talented Chinese authors.
In Germany, the bookshop Another Country (which also made Lonely Planet’s list) has a similar idea: customers can purchase secondhand books, read them, and then choose to return the book for only a small fee. But the Beijing Bookworm has stepped it up even further, with a growing annual literary festival and year-round events featuring authors like Emma Donoghue (Room) and Dave Eggers (Zeitoun). Pearson spoke to Bookclub-in-a-Box about her unique business model and her diverse clientele.
Bookclub-in-a-Box: Your unique bookstore has become a booming cultural hub that includes a lending library, a bar, a restaurant and an annual literary festival. How did this idea originate? How did you make it happen?
Alexandra Pearson: If you go way back in time, it started as a modest library in a totally different business all together. I bought the original collection of 2,000 titles from second hand bookshops around the south coast of England. Four years later, I had the dubious pleasure of the buying the very same books once more. And that was the beginning of The Bookworm. So it started as a small library cum café, but membership grew quickly, and there was an obvious desire for author and book events in Beijing, and so the idea took root. My business partner, Peter Goff, joined me a few years later, and we have since opened branches in Chengdu and Suzhou where we try to serve our local communities in those cities.
What are the significant differences between The Beijing Bookworm and a traditional version of an independent bookstore? Should other bookstores, in danger of closing down, move towards this model?
I do think that we are in a different situation being located in China. There are very few English-language bookshops here, and no lending libraries that foreigners can access easily. As a result, The Bookworm was in a position to provide a service that was much appreciated from the beginning. I think that all independent bookshops needs to be very close to the community that they serve, but this differs widely according to the location and the local situation.
It seems counterintuitive to have a free lending library in the same building as a bookstore with paying customers. How do you manage these two things to coexist successfully?
There seem to be different types of ‘book people’: those that hoard and those that have no physical attachment to a book; buyers and borrowers. So it is with our customers. We have about 4,000 members who borrow regularly but almost never buy, and many shop customers that are not library members. Additionally, we have customers who never borrow or buy (a book), but they enjoy the ambience of a café/restaurant surrounded by books.
How would you categorize your customer base: Purchasers? Borrowers? Chinese locals? Expats?
We have a real mix, and it changes throughout the day. There are mornings when The Bookworm looks like a mobile office for freelancers, then it morphs into a more chatty lunch crowd of Chinese and expats. The evenings have a totally different customer base and again is a mixture of Chinese and foreign.
Do you plan to sell or market ebooks? How do you see them competing with print in your store or elsewhere?
No plan yet — partly because our team seem to be hoarders of the printed book and has yet to have any sort of feeling for a digital version. Long live the library! But we should probably awaken to the realities at some point.
What are some of the things that have inspired you about other bookstores you have visited? Do you have a favorite bookstore in China, or anywhere in the world, that you admire?
I am a bit of a nut for the independent business models, and admire organizations that have the passion, energy, and drive to serve the communities in which they operate. I loved [The Emsworth Bookshop,] the bookshop in my village in England. It had a small selection of excellently chosen books, diverse and current, and was run by two wonderfully bookie local women. Unfortunately there were not enough of us to serve it, and it closed two years ago. There is now a small bookshop (new and secondhand) in the next door village that also organizes a literary festival locally. I am very proud to be a patron of their festival, and I hope that by tapping into this new area of energy and creativity it will flourish.