Unless you’re in the online book-selling business, book stores elsewhere in the world seem to struggle with making ends meet. Competing with the growing demand for the convenience of electronic devices, it is becoming a rare image to see people flipping through binded paper in their soft or hard covers. Thankfully there are still places where book culture is redefining its place in modern society, and reading isn’t just something you should do with a Kinder or an iPad. I love the smell of books and much prefer the motion and feel of turning pages while completely engrossed in a story. I am aware at how contradicting this sounds coming from the owner of this blog, but it is true that reading books seems to be less of a mainstream activity that is only finding its way back into society in recent years.
In Taiwan’s case however, books aren’t just simply making a contemporary comeback. Since the end of the Chinese Civil War, book stores have become an important source for locals and visitors alike, particularly Chinese Nationals, in search of literature that have been banned in Communist China. Perhaps the conflict of political interest between Taiwan and China has attributed somewhat in the keeping of the island’s book culture but book stores have become just as popular with younger generations who are less inclined with politics too.
You only need to look to book store powerhouse Eslite (誠品書店) to understand that reading books in Taiwan is not just a leisure activity of the past. Since being here I have visited 4 out of 5 of the Eslite branches in Taipei and easily admit that an Eslite book store is my urban happy place.
Because it isn’t just a book store. Yes there has been other brands such as Borders that claim this, but Eslite brings it to a whole new level.
Since the 1989 opening of its first book store in Taipei’s Dunhua (敦化), focusing on the Arts and Humanities, the Eslite brand is now a giant corporation expanding to 48 stores across Taiwan, Hong Kong and now China. They have ventured into music, boutique malls, IT logistics and have also opened an art gallery, a foundation of art and culture, and even a hotel. Its flagship Dunhua branch is the first 24/7 book store to open, and apart from making reading available for all hours of the day, patrons can chill to music, peruse through an entire floor of stationary, dine in its food hall and also just to name a few, buy wine from its international wine cellar. It has become quite the popular hang out spot even at the wee hours of the morning, attracting hipsters and bookworms alike.
At its Xinyi branch (信義) , one can wander to a pen boutique to select the perfect pen and notebook if they feel so inclined to start writing. It is hard not to be inspired by the countless books and magazines in your surrounds. But you could also get inspired to cook, and where else is more perfect for picking up your new favourite recipe book and then have you watch a cooking demonstration all under one roof?
Probably the most enticing of all book stores is the Eslite Spectrum Mall found on the grounds of an old tobacco factory now known as Songshan Cultural And Creative Park (松山文創園區). Everything you want to buy or have never thought of but now want to collect, is here. From boutique lifestyle products, handmade gifts to luxury goods, I struggled internally to not buy anything and everything my eyes laid upon. But perhaps the coup de gras here is the variety of activities that people could try. You can make your own leather bag, cross-stitch your way through a wall feature for your home, or even just take the time to taste tea. There is also a large vintage vinyl records collection located amongst its books, and if that doesn’t entice the hipsters then the guitar store slash music studio slash lifestyle store sure as hell would.
This rundown of Eslite may make it seem as though people are here for anything but reading, but rest-assured that the cornerstone of this brand, the books, are definitely not discounted. Every store I’ve been to, there are people engrossed in books as much as there are people here making the most of a comfortable space to relax in. And this is probably the strangest thing about Eslite because it seems counter-productive and definitely counter-profit-making the way they run their business. You can come here, sit down and read for as long as you like and not buy a thing – the store then acting more like a library so-to-speak. Everything else that the brand sells is largely contributing to the book store to remain open, and so like any good symbiotic relationship, allows readers to continue reading for little expense, or even free.
In the grand scheme of things, this certainly fuels the book culture in Taipei. By pushing the boundaries beyond classic book-selling imagery, Eslite Bookstores invites novice readers and people previously not familiar with hanging around anywhere near books to explore the world of the written word. Its exposure as a trendy hangout spot is just as important as its diverse variety of literature and reading material. And this is what I love so much about this place. Anyone – young, old, hip, bookish, looking to interact or looking for a good read is welcome here.
Eslite isn’t the only go-to place to find books in Taipei. Used and second-hand book stores are teeming around Gongguan (公館) area near National Taiwan University and is a hotspot for students in search of low-cost textbooks. I also happened across an underground mall between Zhongshan MRT (中山站) and Shuanglian MRT stations (雙連站) where a whole section was entirely dedicated to books and manga. The most amazing part of this is that it is located next to an established public space for hip-hop dancers to practice in. It is truly exhilarating to find such unexpected displays of classically contrasting areas in harmony with each other. And a wonderful affirmation of why I am engrossed with Taiwan so much.