Taipei’s Eslite bookstore: Microcosm of an industry in flux

The Eslite bookstore in TaipeiThe Eslite bookstore in Taipei (Source: Robyn Lee)

A bookstore might seem like the last place for young people to be Saturday nights, but the scene at Eslite in central Taiwan is anything but quiet. Towering five stories high, the Eslite flagship store seems to transcend all stereotypes: not only is it attracting customers of all ages and backgrounds, but it has seemingly shrugged off the ever growing competition between print and digital media.

Eslite wasn’t always the megastore it is now. It has expanded its market over the years, starting as a kitchenware importing company in the seventies, growing to books food, and drinks, reaching an online market by the early noughties. Eslite Group opened its first branch in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, in 1989, and today the company owns 42 stores in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong. In 2013, reported turnover was around $425 million, with sales increasing by 7.83% within the first two months of the year, according to the Taipei Times. For the residents of Taipei, Eslite is more a place to relax and enjoy themselves rather than a place to visit for the sole purpose of buying books.

For this reason, Eslite’s success seems to be defying the trend of failing bookstores in the US and the UK. With the rise of Amazon, e-books and mobile reading devices, bookstores are finding drops in print book sales and the downturn of the economy hard to recover from. According to the Bookseller’s Association, the number of independent bookstores in the UK has fallen below 1,000 for the first time, while the number of bookstores in the US has dropped by 12.2% since 1997, with a 9.6% decrease in sales at bookstores since 2007. Indeed, as of 2013, Bookstats, an American publishing statistics modeler, reported that online retail represented as much as 35.4% of all trade publisher revenue.

While in the UK the main issue is the closure of independent bookstores, in the US big-box book retailers like Borders and Barnes and Noble are suffering as well. In 2010, Borders closed 600 of its stores after filing for bankruptcy, and according to the Wall Street Journal, Barnes and Noble has lost $157.8 million since 2009, closing 63 stores within the last five years. Like Eslite, Barnes and Noble prided itself on amenities like its cozy in-store coffee shops, children’s storytelling and well stocked shelves of the latest bestsellers, yet it has constantly been out-competed by Amazon, even after the release of its e-reader, the Nook.

In contrast to massive chains like Barnes and Noble that are preparing their products to be more digitally accessible, independent bookstores are focusing more on creating an atmosphere to make up for the limited range of books in stock or the higher prices. Powerhouse Arena in New York City, for instance, has structured its space to function as both an independent bookstore and the backdrop for parties, performances and marketing events, thus relying on event bookings to pay rent and generate revenue. Bookstores with more limited space rely on tactics like setting up a wine bar, selling toys and games in addition to books, or specialising in a niche area like graphic novels or photography books. The main concern for many struggling bookstores, however, is still to increase the sales of books and reading material, as shown by the attempts of many smaller bookstores to lower the prices of their print material. Eslite’s focus seems not to be on selling the books on its shelves using these business tactics, but on allowing customers to enjoy reading books whenever they like in a comfortable environment. Their ethos is based upon the importance of leisurely reading without pressuring customers to buy anything; a USP that has clearly found a niche in the market. Even more importantly, Eslite adapts their branches to meet the individual needs of each location: the branch at Taipei World Trade Center focuses more on business management material while the more suburban branch in Tienmu features a view of a green garden, creating a relaxing environment for busy young professionals. The flexibility of their business model was further demonstrated by the store’s decision to adjust the opening schedule of the Hong Kong branch after discovering that opening 24 hours wasn’t cost effective.

Nevertheless, Eslite’s 24 hour model is still important in establishing the bookstore’s identity as a safe haven for those who seek relaxation and quiet in a bustling city. As the founder Wu Ching-yu has put it: “Rather than selling books, we want to give readers a calm place to immerse themselves in reading.” Indeed, the fact that people of all ages choose to explore its shelves on a Saturday night rather than go out to clubs is evidence of its identity as a place of gathering and community. Instead of limiting themselves to being booksellers, Eslite has consolidated fine dining, fashion and cinema into one building. Like Powerhouse Arena, Eslite does not have to rely on pricing its books low or digitising business to generate more revenue; it marries the independent bookstore model of pairing books with other amenities with the large scale of big-box bookstores. This culture of leisurely reading that Eslite breeds means it is popular with those who have the time and money to spare, such as travellers from China who are interested in titles that are censored on the mainland, or students in pursuit of exam preparation material. Even if Eslite does seem like a glorified library, those who get tired of browsing don’t have to leave the store to take a coffee break or shop for gifts. Bookstores with coffee shops are a dime a dozen, yet the seating area is usually small and cramped, an indication that the customer should grab what they need and be on their way.

One the contrary, Eslite’s aim is to become a hub of entertainment and relaxation rather than a place to hurriedly pick something up. By branding themselves as a store unconcerned with whether or not the customer actually makes a purchase, Eslite strongly implies that prioritise the experience of customers over profit and are willing to adapt to fit their needs. Meanwhile, many Western bookstores that are seemingly aiming for browsing comfort miss the mark. The Strand in New York City boasts eighteen miles of books, yet the only seating area is located on the second floor and consist of two benches suitable for a maximum of six people. While the Strand is popular with locals and visitors alike, the overcrowded aisles as a result of the lack of seating hardly creates an environment for leisurely perusal. Around every corner there seems to be an employee glaring at you for taking too much time browsing and blocking the narrow walkway. Barnes and Noble, though boasting in-house coffee shops and some niches for sitting, has the same utilitarian atmosphere. While it seems counterintuitive, perhaps Eslite’s success is not due to its variety of goods or its convenience, but rather that it takes itself out of the competition between digital and print as well as the pricing feud with online sellers like Amazon. Rather, Eslite seems to recognise the importance of lifting the pressure of purchase and letting the opportunity to enjoy books at any hour speak for itself.