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Macau bookstores stuck between decay and revival

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image Pin-to Bookstore

In 2008, Commercial Press (HK) launched its first chain shop in Macau, located in Rua do Campo. In June this year, the Hong Kong bookstore chain had to close its first and only local branch, folding after five years of business.
The company said that the closure was due to a shortage of manpower, but some of its competitors believe Commercial Press’ closure can be attributed to the whopping rental fees.
“If you want to operate a bookstore by renting the place, it is difficult,” says one local bookshop owner. His store is a time-honored establishment in the area.
The bookstore representatives could not be reached for further comment.  But local readers say that they already miss the bookshop. “It’s a pity that the shop closed its Macau branch,” says a book lover, Mr. Yeung, a regular customer at Commercial Press. “I think it is better than other local bookstores. Ninety percent of their products were books. In contrast, when I search other local bookstores, stationery accounts for some 30 percent,” he tells the Times. Yeung now intends to shop in other bookshops and book fairs, as well as ‘fish’ for some good volumes online.
“Macau has a small market for bookshops. This market is oversaturated. Therefore those who entered the market late may suffer losses,” he comments.
The reader’s remark mirrors the sentiments of another veteran bookshop operator, Chan Im Wa, Managing Director of the First Book Centre. “They [Commercial Press] should have realized that Macau’s readership is not that big.”
As Chan mentions, “Shop rent is another key issue.” According to her, most of Macau’s surviving bookstores own the premises. “If you want to operate a bookstore by renting the place, it is difficult,” states Chan.
The First Book Centre, which was headed by the veteran bookshop manager, opened in the early ’90s and has helped organize a local book carnival for 16 years.
“Despite the high rental, there are still some successful exceptions, such as Pin-to Bookstore,” Chan tells the Times.
Located on the second floor of a commercial building at Senado Square, the bookstore is surrounded by constant sales, tourists, and noise.
However, the stairs lead to the “secret place” – with various books and cats on the second floor, as well as CDs and other music paraphernalia on the third floor. There were a total of seven readers in the tiny bookstore when the Times visited. However, the shop operator did not respond to the Times’ inquiry by press time.
“Of course the bookstore operators have their own methods of survival, but it still depends on the shop owner – whether the owner offers fair rent to the operator or not,” says Ms. Chan.
The Portuguese Bookshop (owned by the Portuguese State and managed by local company Praia Grande Edições) is another long-established bookstore in this area. Ms Christina Lai, who has worked in the bookshop for the past 28 years, recalls the owners’ earlier intention of privatizing the bookshop.  “I don’t see the trend of closing bookstores, or moving elsewhere at the moment,” she says.
Relating to the closure of the HK-based bookstore Commercial Press, she says: “I heard the landlord increased the rent by a huge amount. (…) But of course labor shortage is also a major problem.”
Ms. Chan shares the same feeling. “Operating a bookshop is not that easy; it is tiring. You have to carry the books and organize them… they are so heavy. And the profit is scanty. Young people are not willing to take over the bookstore business.”
Despite short profits and high levels of stress, another bookstore has told the Times that they can still manage. One branch of the Starlight bookstore (also known as Seng Kwong) says they have started selling souvenirs during the past few years. “On holidays or during summer, souvenirs sell well. But during school terms, schoolbooks are more popular. So it varies from time to time.”
In the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, many concerned readers are afraid that bookshops will gradually disappear. But for bookstore owner Chan, the trend is probably not taking effect in Macau.
“Unless e-books become very popular in Macau, I don’t regard the circumstances (of bookstores’ gradual disappearance) as serious. At the same time, the government is investing in libraries for the public as well as for schools. This is also a very important move to support bookstores. And we are quite dependent on schools and the government.”
“Macau bookshops will not die. Operating a bookstore can be kept at a stable level – you won’t earn too much profit in good days, but you won’t lose much in bad days either.”

Eslite: bookstore and cultural hub

Amidst doubts about the future of bookstores and the rising online book sales, the Taiwanese chain Eslite opened its first overseas store in Hong Kong last year. Operating 24 hours a day in a Causeway Bay mall, the shop functions as a cultural hub. Besides selling a wide collection of books in Chinese and English, it offers exhibitions, events, performing arts and fine dining experiences. Eslite has announced plans to open a new branch in Shanghai.

English books 50 pct of “milestone” sales

“Milestone Books” is one of the few local bookstores focused on the English reading market. It has been in operation for three years at The Venetian Macao. A staff member told the Times that the shop sells both English and Chinese publications in equal proportion. She revealed however, “There are not many people buying books. There seems to be not many book lovers in Macau.”

 

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