This is the third part of a series on the global booksellers defying the pandemic
Albert Wan is not your average bookseller. For starters, Bleak House Books, which he opened in Hong Kong in 2017, boasts its own “Bill of Rights”.
“We’re kind of outspoken as a business,” says Wan, a former civil rights and criminal defence attorney who relocated to his parents’ birthplace from Atlanta.
That commitment to values including free expression has earned a warm welcome from Hong Kong’s close-knit literary fraternity, a band of resistants against Beijing’s escalating repression in Asia’s financial hub.
Bleak House doesn’t stock the fashionable titles on bestseller lists. “In fact, we try to avoid those books,” says Wan. Instead, the cosy space is packed with literary fare to nourish a restive city’s spirit. Popular sellers about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests share space with the anti-authoritarian canon: Joshua Wong’s Unfree Speech alongside Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and Václav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless. A low table is covered with George Orwell’s oeuvre, which Wan says flies off the shelves.
“We want to be selling more literature, more kids’ books, but everyone wants to buy 1984 and Animal Farm,” Wan says.
Running an indie bookstore in Hong Kong requires more than the usual perseverance of a small-business owner. In 2015, five booksellers linked to a publisher known for exposés of China’s leadership were abducted. One, Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in February; another, Lam Wing-kee, has fled to Taiwan.
“So far, we haven’t been kidnapped,” Bleak House’s Twitter bio observes.
The shop achieved another remarkable feat this year: it broke even for the first time, despite the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic. Hong Kong has mostly managed to contain its outbreak, with about 7,000 cases and 112 deaths, and Wan was forced to close just twice, in March and August. He also introduced a 10-person in-store limit.
Bleak House has closed to walk-ins again this month, as a fourth wave mounts. But online sales have picked up. “It’s a good sign, it means that the public is reading,” he says.
The wider industry has been less fortunate. Retail booksellers have been “basically wiped out”, says Bao Pu, founder of New Century Press, an influential publisher.
“The direct reason” — travel restrictions. Hong Kong previously occupied a niche, publishing critical literature on contemporary Chinese history and politics. Readers from mainland China, where the works were banned, gobbled them up.
“No more mainland travellers means no more sales of these books,” says Bao, whose father was the most senior official purged during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Readers in Hong Kong could soon face similar constraints under Beijing’s sweeping national security law, which is designed to snuff out the city’s protest movement. Dozens have been arrested, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, textbooks have been censored and public libraries emptied of books including Wong’s.
“The owners here are very brave,” says Stephen Chen, 50, a history teacher buying a copy of Stefan Zweig’s Encounters and Destinies: A Farewell to Europe.
The city’s once-boisterous publishing industry has been gutted. Beijing’s Liaison Office owns dozens of commercial printers, newspapers and more than half of Hong Kong’s bookstores, giving the Communist party another tool to drown out dissent.
Bleak House has remained resolute despite opaque legal threats befitting its Dickensian namesake. “From day one, I always stocked the books that I wanted to stock,” says Wan. The legislation “has not changed the criteria”.
That makes him one of the few surviving holdouts in a once crowded market — a bookseller with a moral spine.
Off the busiest street in Jaffa, the quickly gentrifying Arab neighbourhood south of Tel Aviv, is a curious, charming bookstore run by Michel el-Raheb, a 59-year-old engineer turned quiet revolutionary.
And if reading is resistance, the Yafa Book Store and Café is a den of rebellion.
The walls are lined with the work of authors despised by the Israeli rightwing. Noam Chomsky, the Jewish-American linguist who was barred from entering Israel in 2010, rubs shoulders with Ghassan Kanafani, the firebrand Palestinian leftist assassinated by Mossad in 1972, when he was a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The late Mahmoud Darwish, national poet of Palestine, has pride of place. But so does Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian feminist once jailed by then-president Anwar Sadat, and Ahlam Mosteghanemi, the Algerian poet and author whose French-speaking father taught her Arabic in forlorn exile.
It’s the rarest of things in Israel, a bookstore dedicated to Arabic literature. (Two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled Arabic’s status as an official language in the Jewish state, even though it’s the mother tongue of a fifth of the population.)
Until el-Raheb opened his store in 2003, Arabic speakers would drive to east Jerusalem’s Education Bookshop, or to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, where literature flowed more easily from Jordan, the dwindling lifeline between Palestinians and the Arab world.
But even now, as his film-maker nephew Tony Copti is documenting his life in a film tentatively titled “The Man Who Dreamed of Books”, keeping the shelves stacked is nearly impossible.
Israeli law makes it illegal to import goods from enemy countries, and Lebanon is home to some of the best publishing houses in the Arab world, as are Tunisia and Syria. El-Raheb is hoping to sue the government to change the law. “They want to control what we read,” Copti says. “Because reading is resistance, awareness is resistance.”
Soldiers have seized el-Raheb’s books as he has tried to haul them across the border in his luggage, and every so often, badly disguised Israeli cops spend hours sitting conspicuously in the corner, confused by the fog of weed wafting in from the street.
But as el-Raheb freely admits, the political literature doesn’t sell much. Israeli Jews are confused when they see an entire shelf on the academic study of the Koran, brushing up against studies of Hamas or Isis. Arab teenagers want translations of motivational literature — Paulo Coelho is a big draw, and the Egyptian hypnotist Ibrahim Elfiky.
The real draw, at least for the neighbourhood, is the café itself. The seats are pushed up against each other, spawning friendships and romances. Neighbours leave their house keys on the shelf behind the cash register, and your correspondent settles his tab at the end of the month, admonished by the staff to eat more salad and less of the chicken sandwich.
An eccentrically stocked bar tempts at the entrance to the kitchen, where el-Raheb is often racing to keep up with orders of maqloubeh — “upside down”, in Arabic — an old Palestinian recipe of layered rice, chicken and vegetables, revealed with great flourish when the pot is flipped over on to a plate.
In the afternoons, the “parliament” of gossipy elders gathers outside, arguing politics, and in the evenings, local musicians bring out their instruments for impromptu concerts. When Israel’s first lockdown ended in late Spring, the entire street came out to dance outside the bookstore.
Covid has dented business. El-Raheb worries he may not be able to afford the rent for much longer, especially as Jaffa gentrifies around him. The café makes more money than the books themselves. But then, he says, “When people say they like to read, what they are really saying is they like the smell of books, to feel it in their hand. So they sit in the café, and they see the books, and smell the books — then, they start to read.”
Antipathy towards Amazon has long helped keep Motzbuch, an independent bookshop in west Berlin, in business. During the pandemic that sentiment — and sales — have thrived. “We used Facebook to call on customers to support the store and sales have gone up by 50 per cent,” says Annemie Twardawa, who helps run the store in Schoeneberg, an artistic and intellectual area that counts Christopher Isherwood, David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich among its former residents. “People not only have more time to read, they’ve also shown more enthusiasm to boycott Amazon.”
A relatively light lockdown here meant the store could stay open, though the number of customers is limited and all must wear masks. “In Berlin, culture plays a special role and with theatres closed, bookstores became places of encounter, exchange and community,” says Felix Maschewski, a cultural theorist and economist and Motzbuch regular. “Books were our staple food — we bought novels to help us understand the pandemic, and to drift off and escape it completely.”
Annemie’s parents Willie Hepperle and Suzie Twardawa, who passed away in 2008, founded Motzbuch in 1983, in the early years living in the back rooms with their then-newborn daughter. “We had a baby on the way and the options at the time were to get a job in academia or bureaucracy. We didn’t fancy either of those,” says Hepperle.
The shop began by specialising in works on social sciences, but has since become a cultural institution. “Motzbuch has always dealt with progressive topics,” says Anna-Verena Nosthoff, a political theorist and philosopher. “It was always interested in the marginalised and precarious, the unobserved voices, it was a place for these debates way before #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.”
Suzie also wrote the “motzbuch-Reihe”, editions dedicated to the history and sociology of local landmarks such as the Tiergarten, Berlin’s most famous park, Viktoria-Luise-Platz, one of the city’s most beautiful squares, and Nollendorfplatz, named after a Prussian military victory. “We’re still being asked for them by customers every day, people from the area love them as presents and to better understand where they live,” says Martina Horakova, a family friend who has helped out in the store through the years.
The bookshop is renowned for its recommendations, and for regular customers puts together packages of titles that they think they will enjoy. “In first grade my son Johannes was asked to buy his first read,” says Ruth Jacob, a neighbour. “We both still remember how dearly Susanna cared. She wanted to choose a book he would love — we picked Die Leute von Muzgigl by Hermann Krekeler — and he did. Many more were to follow.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 saw Hepperle head east, widening the customer base. “Our new East German customers were hungry for reading, especially for books about western philosophers,” he says. “There was a boom in the store, new further education institutions opened.”
While the bookshop has weathered German reunification and the rise of Amazon, it may not survive the wave of gentrification that has hit Berlin in recent years. The neighbourhood, once a bastion of the city’s squatting movement, has seen rents surge.
“I always felt a certain pride living in a street that is home to this unique bookstore,” says Jacob. “It felt like Motzbuch would be here forever to save us from buying from chains or online, and to help us dream that we can change the world. It would hurt deeply to walk past these windows and find it replaced by an office space.”
As South Africa entered its pandemic lockdown in March, Griffin Shea, owner of Bridge Books in downtown Johannesburg, raced to complete renovations behind his bottle-green storefront. “I was shooing out the builders and trying to make them finish before we had to close the doors,” says Shea, a Louisiana-born former journalist. “It was very bad timing.”
Lockdown struck just as Bridge Books, an indie bookseller with a mission to represent African literature in all its guises, was riding a wave of interest in homegrown writing, especially among young South Africans. “There are so many great local books out there,” says Shea — and yet even his own adopted children “could walk into a store and find hardly any books about people who look like them”.
Inside the store, which is tucked into a snug corner of the city’s grand old 1887 Rand Club, Sol Plaatje’s “Mhudi”, one of the first novels written in English by a black South African, shares a trestle table with post-apartheid memoirs and Kenyan and Zimbabwean classics. In the children’s section, brightly coloured storybooks represent many of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
With still few browsing in-store, even as South Africa has since reopened, Bridge Books has had to reinvent itself online. The shop has had a web store since it opened in 2016, “but it was always something extra that we did,” says Shea. Before the pandemic, online sales made up around 10 per cent of sales: “Now that is completely reversed”.
It is not just books. During lockdown, sudden online sales growth caught many retailers by surprise in South Africa, where only about 2 per cent of retail is internet-based. At Bridge Books, it has meant much more time spent working with couriers and figuring out logistics.
Perhaps the hardest decision Shea had to take during lockdown was to close a second store in Maboneng, an arty district that was a tourist draw before South Africa closed to travellers in March. Borders are open again but the Maboneng shop, which occupied another opulent building from the city’s 19th-century boom, is still shut. “Until there are more tourists again, I don’t see that situation changing.
“At our lowest months, we were doing 17,000 rand [$1,150] in turnover — which would be down by a percentage that is so huge, I can’t even calculate,” Shea says.
But there have been upsides, too. Under lockdown, Bridge Books handled orders from outside Africa for the first time, as well as more isolated parts of South Africa itself. “These are places that didn’t have bookstores anyway,” says Shea. “They don’t have a lack of access because of lockdown — they are in really small communities. Or even in medium-sized cities.
“There is clearly a market for African literature that is much broader than I had really tapped into before. So that is one of the things to think about — how do we embrace that?”
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