For the past few decades, Taiwan’s capital has seen a rising thicket of sleek high-rise buildings housing foreign boutiques and elegant dining chains. At night, you either groove with the crowd that fills the street food maze or the dance clubs that rattle until the MRT starts operating the following morning.
Fast forward to modern-day Taipei, and the nightlife scene seemed to have changed. Ask the locals where the cool kids are hanging out these days and they might point you to a 24-hour haven that allows you to stay as long as you want with no purchase necessary and sneak in a catnap too.
Welcome to Eslite Bookstore.
The news of Eslite Group opening an outlet in KL was joyous but also baffling when many bookstores are struggling in the face of an onslaught from online retailers. However, Eslite Group chairperson Mercy Wu believes that bookstores still serve a purpose, be it as an incubator of ideas or even a place to satiate the craving of genuine human interactions born out of a common love for books.
Mercy Wu, who possesses “a greater dose of both shrewdness and romance” (qualities her late father and Eslite Group founder Robert Wu had said to be crucial to run the family business), aims to deliver positive energy and restore a sense of well-being with the opening of the KL store despite commercial challenges amid the pandemic. During a Zoom interview recently, she clues us in on some of the highlights that Malaysian bibliophiles can look forward to.
A bookstore’s layout highly impacts a shopper’s browsing experience. Eslite has always been known as an architecturally sound bookstore that doesn’t just pander to social media aesthetics. Will that be the same for the KL outlet?
Mercy Wu: We’re lucky to have scored a location in the heart of KL. Being the new Starhill’s anchor tenant on the first floor, we have a street-fronting view that can also be seen from the outside. That itself is already a very good layout. Interior-wise, we began brainstorming for ideas since the beginning of this year but I’d still like to keep the design details under wraps because we want people to develop their own impression when they walk into the store for the first time.
When people build bookstores these days, they tend to construct grand book walls with big titles for people to take photographs. We don’t want to do that. We still want Eslite’s focus to be books as well as the idea of bringing everyone together.
The book selection for Eslite outlets in Taiwan mainly focuses on arts and humanities. What will be the emphasis for the Malaysian readership?
In Taiwan, most outlets carry traditional Chinese books, with only 10% to 15% English titles. In Malaysia, however, we’ll be offering a broad range of genres including traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, Malay, English and even Japanese. We want to make good use of our supply chain because we’ve established a good relationship with our publishers. It’s very important to understand what the local market needs. For our outlets in Hong Kong example, we stocked at least 40% English books initially but soon realised that most readers are keen on reading Chinese books.
Although I’m running a bookstore business, I don’t get to read a lot because I find reading a luxury these days. A novel, for instance, will take me three days so I prefer biographies because there’s no pressure to finish them. Reading the lives of filmmakers and writers such as Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (whose seminal work Taste of Cherry won the 1997 Palme d’Or at Cannes) and Japanese poet Tamikawa Shuntaro’s The Art of Being Alone feel like they’re revealing their secrets to me. I find their personal insights so profound that they can maybe help me manage my own life and business a little better.
You talk a lot about creating a wholesome place that’s not just commercially driven but also replenishes the soul. What sort of experiences will you offer or a special nook within the bookstore to help Eslite achieve that?
It won’t be a corner but an all-rounded experience that showcases different aspects of the store. Of course, there will be a café for people to read, lounge away the time, or even date [laughs]. We’re constantly trying to generate conversation so we’ll be setting up a space called Eslite Forum too where we’ll organise events, pop-up stores, readings and a meeting place to collaborate with KL retailers and book publishers.
There are numerous Malaysian writers who are very familiar with the Taiwanese book scene and we’re hoping to invite them to our forum to share their writing journey or even engage in some cultural activities. One of them is former fashion magazine editor and writer Fan Junqi (范俊奇).
Speaking of local collaborations, are there any homegrown brands or authors you’d like to showcase or work with?
We’re excited to work with the creative studios in Malaysia. To be honest, we’ve been in talks with several local brands but discussions have been put on hold due to the pandemic. Retail aside, we’re also trying to engage Taiwanese authors who have been living in Malaysia (or familiar with the local industry) who might offer us a different view on how to enhance the reading experience for Malaysians.
I’ve recently spoken to Taiwanese essayist and cultural critic Lung Ying-tai (龍應台), who visited KL just two years ago, and she told me that Malaysia is a very important place if Eslite Group is looking to expand because the locals are “hungry for this kind of knowledge and experience”.
Eslite Group has called its Taiwan flagship store a cultural landmark. How would you define that? Do you aim to turn the KL store into one?
The so-called “cultural landmark” we talk about does not only refer to the store architecturally but its ability to gather different people together. We don’t want to promote specific values but to serve as a platform for people to share their own. I think that’s why Eslite is so special because our all-encompassing bookstores are in a unique position than, say, shopping malls. We definitely need to look into the KL outlet once it opens and work on the areas we can improve on. For example, people asked us a lot if it’s going to be a 24-hour outlet. We don’t know yet but we definitely see the potential because the location is very suitable.
For more in-depth conversation with Mercy Wu and her journey with Eslite Group, pick up a copy of our cover story this week (Dec 7, 2020).