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Dalian's New Generation of Book Cafés Offers a Lifeline to Struggling Retailers

Hard-hit by online sales and e-books, conventional bookstores looked to have no future. The popularity of book cafes, however, offers hope that catering to cultural leisure pursuits may prove their salvation.

Photo: Customers enjoying their books and coffee in the afternoon sun.
Customers enjoying their books and coffee in the afternoon sun.
Photo: Customers enjoying their books and coffee in the afternoon sun.
Customers enjoying their books and coffee in the afternoon sun.

The "post-bookstore" era was ushered in by the emergence of the internet and e-books, a development that marked a real shift in the way books are read, bought and distributed. This change has seen conventional bookstores increasingly shifting to multi-function operations and offering services beyond the sale of books. In Dalian, for instance, as well as shopping for books, chatting, buying keepsakes, meeting friends and drinking coffee are now all catered for by many bookstores. Should this new business model prove successful, it may throw a lifeline to many struggling book retailers.

In Dalian, two bookstores – Echo Books & Cafe (Echo Bookafé) and the Momi Café – have taken the lead in this reinvention process. Based on their experiences, there are a number of key points that other struggling bookshops could learn from:

I. Echo Bookafé

The Echo Bookafé is located at 15 Cool, a warehouse-turned-commercial block in Gangwan Square in Dalian’s Zhongshan District. Its owner is one of the original partners who set up the bookstore in early 2008, a move inspired by his love of the printed word. As with other similar outlets, the shop has been obliged to rethink its business model in light of the changed digital landscape.

1. Well-defined target groups

For conventional bookstores, their target consumers groups are simply those who buy books. In the case of book cafés, however, their target groups is less clear cut and includes all of those interested in the more cultural pastimes. These consumers who may be inclined to spend an hour or two a day reading and drinking coffee in a conducive literary environment.

Photo: Echo Books & Café.
Echo Books & Café.
Photo: Echo Books & Café.
Echo Books & Café.
Photo: 15 Cool adjacent to Dalian’s ferry terminal.
15 Cool adjacent to Dalian’s ferry terminal.
Photo: 15 Cool adjacent to Dalian’s ferry terminal.
15 Cool adjacent to Dalian’s ferry terminal.

2. Location

Echo Books & Café is located by the scenic 15 Cool, adjacent to Dalian harbour. With its floor-to-ceiling windows, the appealing local scenery provides an ideal spot for leisurely reading. The front section of the Café is a standalone bookstore, while the rear section is a spacious café. On the door leading from the bookstore to the cafe, there is a notice saying: "Please pay for your book before you start reading in the café".

II. Momi Café

Momi Café is a chain bookstore with branches in more than 10 cities across China. Its first Dalian store was set up in Dalian Fisherman’s Wharf in 2010.  A second outlet has since opened in the city.

1. Postcard mailing service

As a core principle, Momi only stocks its own proprietorially-designed product range. One of its unique offerings is to assist customers in mailing postcards and gifts to themselves or their friends on a pre-arranged date. "Mail to the Future" is a signature service of the chain and is highlighted in its internal signage.

Overall, Momi does not resemble a typical bookstore or coffee shop, despite the fact it serves both functions. Neither is it a post office, despite the fact it offers a mailing service for letters and postcards. In fact, it is aiming to be an iconic and fashionable hangout, with its "Mail to the Future" service as its most talked-about selling point. In line with this, customers are encouraged to entrust their greeting cards, love letters and the like to Momi by placing them in the appropriate mailboxes. These can be labelled for specific dates or placed in particular chronologically marked pigeonholes. Later, these will be mailed to their intended recipients on the specified dates by Momi’s staff.

Photo: Momi Café at Dalian Fisherman’s Wharf.
Momi Café at Dalian Fisherman’s Wharf.
Photo: Momi Café at Dalian Fisherman’s Wharf.
Momi Café at Dalian Fisherman’s Wharf.
Photo: The postcard wall in Momi Café.
The postcard wall in Momi Café.
Photo: The postcard wall in Momi Café.
The postcard wall in Momi Café.

2. Location

The first Momi Café in Dalian was established at Tiger Beach Fisherman’s Wharf, a similarly scenic spot to the one favoured by the Echo Bookafé. Readers are encouraged to relax in the Cafe and quietly read a book while enjoying a cup of tea. If they fancy a break from reading, they can instead take in the scenic views enjoyed by the location.

Photo: A large assortment of books.
A large assortment of books.
Photo: A large assortment of books.
A large assortment of books.
Photo: The scenic Tiger Beach Fisherman’s Wharf.
The scenic Tiger Beach Fisherman’s Wharf.
Photo: The scenic Tiger Beach Fisherman’s Wharf.
The scenic Tiger Beach Fisherman’s Wharf.

In short, the tranquility of these specialty book cafes has a clear appeal to the people of the picturesque, but busy city of Dalian. Their success lies in both providing a haven from day-to-day stress, while also proving a cultural oasis in the bustle of the city. Given these early successes, it seems that specialty book cafés may offer a new lease of life to conventional bookshops, both in Dalian and beyond.

Nancy Liu, Dalian Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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