It is the kind of story that keeps you turning the page. “My father established Eslite Bookstore after a heart operation. The surgery was like a rebirth for him,” says Mercy Wu. “At that time, he had made money from real estate, and he thought God wouldn’t give him some money for no reason.”
The double blessing of health and wealth moved Robert Wu Ching-yu to do something good in return. As books and philosophy had always been important to him, he sought to find a way to approach people through literature, aesthetics and the arts. Eslite, set up in Taipei in 1989, would serve as the channel. “It is not only a bookstore, but also a place to settle the mind and body,” the founder said on its website.
His vision resonated with readers, who flocked to Eslite’s Dunnan store in Xinyi district, which became a hub of cultural and creative labels from Taiwan and abroad. More outlets opened up across the country as the company expanded into Hong Kong, China and Japan. It also established other businesses under the same brand, keeping to the fusion retail model of commerce embedded in culture, with books integral to what they offer.
Chengpin, Eslite’s name in Chinese, represents its desire to create a better society. Its English name is derived from an old French word that means “elite”, a symbol for everyone who strives for excellence in life.
When Wu died of a heart attack in 2017, Mercy, then 39, took over as chairperson of Eslite and Eslite Spectrum. She had joined the former in 2004, and was promoted to vice-president and general manager, respectively, of the two companies in 2010.
“My father built Eslite as a venue for him to express his good intentions and his passion for reading. Reading had transformed him. He believed it could have the same effect for people.
“He was like a dreamer. He liked elegant, beautiful things and was a very tasteful person. He enjoyed modern art and read a lot of books on architecture,” she says.
Bringing the brand to customers by integrating books with diverse, compatible cultural content and lifestyle services and products has become a dream for her too. This will turn into a reality for Malaysian book lovers when Eslite Spectrum — the group’s platform for creative commerce that links cultural creativity and business activities — opens an outlet at The Starhill, Kuala Lumpur, in 2022. The Starhill, to be launched next year, is a transformation of the iconic Starhill Gallery developed by YTL Corp Bhd.
The 70,191 sq ft Eslite KL, the group’s first branch in Southeast Asia, will be the anchor tenant at the luxury shopping mall in Bukit Bintang. It will take up the entire Level 1, with an F&B outlet on the ground floor fronting the busy street. Eslite Group signed a tenancy agreement with YTL Land & Development Bhd on Nov 17.
Asked in a Zoom interview how the KL outlet will differ from the 44 others Eslite has today, Mercy says: “Each of our stores is a bit different.What is common is the spirit of the place.We hope it will be a space where we can off can offer creative elements for people to have their ‘me’ time and fi their ‘me’ time and find their inspiration. What we want to create will integrate the diverse and multicultural elements we discover in KL.”
The group looked at thousands of projects from 2017 before deciding on Starhill, based on four factors: Its location in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the scale of the space and its corner. “All these elements are equally important. Starhill is located in the best place we can ever find,” Mercy says.
Visitors can look forward to books byTaiwanese publishers and authors, and well-known creative and cultural brands. As for programmes that Eslite KL has in store for visitors, she would only say: “They will resonate with locals.What will make Starhill different are the activities we create for people to enjoy.”
Mercy knows well the challenges of running a bookstore: Eslite made losses in the first 15 years of its operation.With Covid-19 ripping apart business plans everywhere, is this a good time to have a new branch?
“I don’t know when is a good time, really. Maybe when the best corner appears and the right location,” Mercy says.
“What I am sure of is that if we let go of this chance, it will be really difficult for us to find a place of this scale, in such a great location in KL, and be able to present our different dimensions, activities and events.From this point of view, I think it’s a great time.”
Because of the pandemic, the company will place emphasis on local people and their needs, instead of tourists.That is important, she adds.The same goes for bringing Malaysian labels and companies — especially creative workers’ studios that produce quality goods in small quantities — into the store so that Eslite can present what they have. Eventually, local managers will take charge of operations because, to reach the communities,“we need them to lead us further”.
What about the statistic that Malaysians read only two books a year?
Mercy laughs before saying: “You think you don’t read, but actually you do.You have over 30 million people, which means [they read] 60 million titles a year. That’s always our challenge — to introduce new events and activities to encourage people to enjoy reading again, and give them a place to sit down and be able to do that.”
Research also shows that only 20% to 25% of those who step into a bookstore end up making a purchase. “But the remaining 75% are also the elements that make the place alive,” Mercy shares. At Eslite, there is no pressure on anyone to buy. “Maybe the 75% this time will be the 25% next time. It’s hard to say.”
On what Malaysians can hope to take away from the Starhill store, she adds: “It sounds clichéd, but … a sense of well-being, whether emotional, social or societal. They may feel they are more complete ... somewhere in their mind or even their stomach is good. Maybe there is a sense of connection with each other — that’s what Eslite wants to offer.”
Talk of new ventures brings us back to the crippling eff ects of Covid-19 on business. But not every Eslite location is negatively aff ected, it seems. In fact, the company is doing much better in Hong Kong this year than in 2019.
“A lot of people, when they cannot travel overseas, or when they are sick or [tired of] digital kind of things, they come back to reading.”
Stores cannot survive or make a profi t from books alone, she admits. But a business model that integrates selected products with books, with cultural content in the mix, has served Eslite well, making it a must-visit destination for visitors to Taiwan. Opening round the clock is another attraction: Dunnan, its first store, stayed open for 24 hours a day for 30 years. After it closed in the middle of this year, Eslite transferred the concept to its Xinyi branch.
Will KL be a 24-hour setup? “Not yet. After we open, we will have that discussion with YTL. I think it’s possible — the location is very suitable to do that.”
Eslite is a landmark because of its ability to gather different people to engage in content that is profound, or something that stimulates their passion or just their personality, she explains. “The spirit of the place will bring people together and create community, closeness and intimacy among strangers. That’s the value of Eslite’s existence.”
Mercy stepped into the book trade without formal training, but the values that guided Wu’s business philosophy were ingrained in her from young.
“I remember when I was 10, he presented me a chart on Eslite’s core values: humanity, creativity, dignity, integrity, aesthetics. I think that is something that had been internalised in my mind.”
Even so, her father did not set out to groom her to take over. “My parents didn’t want to force me. I was free to do whatever I wanted, even my master’s.” Dad tried to introduce her to diff erent jobs, but all she wanted to do was “run away from him”. She knew that if she joined Eslite, she would not be able to leave because it was too vast and there were too many things to learn.
This daughter attempted to distance herself from the family business by making plans for further studies after obtaining her master’s in broadcasting from Sheffield in the UK. She did her first degree in English language and literature at Soochow University, Taipei, and worked as a journalist with Taiwan News for six months.
Mercy remembers telling Wu at the Dunnan store café one afternoon that she had been accepted by some university and had to leave home again. “He said, ‘Oh, well, okay. But you have to promise me one thing, then leave.’
“What emerged in my mind was this: ‘You business people are like this — everything, you want to negotiate, you want to have commercial conditions. So, I said, ‘C’mon, just shoot.’
“Then my dad said: ‘Just remember, do not study too hard. Don’t worry about money. You have to travel and really see the world. And before 30, if you have some leisure time, your own me time, if you have something you really want to do, you have to [pursue] it.’”
Wu’s “condition” startled Mercy, especially that bit about money, because she knew Eslite was facing fi nancial diffi culties then. She turned around and asked: “How are you then? Are you doing okay now?”
“He said, ‘Oh, as usual.’ But he looked as if his mind was really far away. Then I just said to him, ‘Maybe, how about my working in your company?’ He said, ‘Whatever. As long as it suits you’. So, I came in. There was no plan; he didn’t believe in it either.”
On hindsight, Mercy realises what she was pursuing at that time was the freedom to decide and choose for herself. “If I could not get it, I would run away. Suddenly, I discovered I had that and got more than what I expected. The question then would be: Can you take them all? Can you just take this?
“Now, 15, 16 years have passed. I really appreciate his not wanting to give me any pressure. Actually, I feel quite grateful. It’s a great journey for me to explore the things I need to learn in this life because we all believe we come here for [something], some task to accomplish, perhaps.”
Have the last three years been different for her? “It’s the same and diff erent. I’ve never really felt my father is not here because, you see, before 2017, I travelled a lot, so I didn’t see him much. It’s a strange feeling — I feel he is around me, he’s actually in Eslite. Sometimes, I do miss him a lot. But in Eslite, whatever I [look at], I can see the protection of his will, his imagination. I don’t feel he is really distant.”
Wu’s legacy of goodwill towards others has come full circle. Taking Eslite onto the digital platform, an omnichannel kind of transformation, pits the team into new territory, but Mercy finds that they are not working alone.
“The greatest thing my dad left was good intentions. A lot of people with good intentions are ready to help me — I rarely am lonely. I just feel I need to make the best use of resources and do the things I can control right now. I know I won’t let him down.
“With the pandemic, I have thought about the worst-case scenarios, the financial things. I have the confidence that whatever decision I make, I believe he will understand. I don’t feel any pressure about letting him down. My pressure comes from asking, Am I trying my best?”
Wu’s younger brother, who has been with Eslite for more than 30 years, is the only other family member in the business. “Maybe he’s the one of the top five people who understand wine best in Taiwan. He’s a person of great taste too.”
Sadly, eager hands and experience alone are not quite enough to keep a business going. This year alone, Eslite has closed 10 stores, including the one in Shenzhen, China. But Mercy remains undaunted.
“Every time I close one store, I actually have in my mind [plans] to open something else. It’s not just about ending some good things because we have new things to do tomorrow. We just give up something in which we don’t see the potential for tomorrow.” But just as the door to reading is never shut, she remains open to opportunity: If there is some element the company wants to return to later, it will.
Books have always been a part of Mercy’s life. “I would say they are a good way to know further about yourself,” she says, echoing sentiments voiced by her father, who emphasised the importance of understanding oneself through reading, and sought answers to the meaning of life in books.
She used to have a book with her all the time because it gave her a sense of security. And lucky is the person who loves to read: “They can enjoy themselves; it’s like an internal dialogue with the writer. The book facilitates the process.”
Her reading list is mixed but she likes biographies and the personal diaries of directors or writers. “It’s like talking to them. And they are revealing their secrets, just between you and them. You get good feelings. It’s profound too. Some of the [works] don’t end — you don’t have pressure to fi nish,” says Mercy, who did not hesitate to share how she came to that English name in high school, after Wendy, her first.
Mercy, in Chinese, denotes compassion. It was “love at fi rst glance” when she came across it in a dictionary of English names, while looking for “the most beautiful name” for herself. “I realised I was looking for something that represented eternity … victory, wisdom, beauty, gratitude? Then it just hit me — compassion. I feel like if there is anything that’s eternal, it’s compassion. So, I chose the name.”
Does it go with her personality? “No. I think mercy is something I need to learn or train [for], or a bit like aspiration. I think maybe it’s the most needed thing among people — it indicates understanding and empathy. It connects with Eslite, but I think that’s a coincidence.
This article first appeared on Dec 7, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia. Photos of eslite spectrum have been updated on Dec 16, 2022.