Thursday, 29 March 2007

The Unbearable Narrow-Mindedness of Being

Years ago I knew it was going to happen at some point, but it didn't. By the time I believe it will be lucky enough to escape the cruelty, it is proven to be inevitable.

I was talking about the failure of Commercial Press, the leading chain bookstore in Hong Kong, to renew its lease of its cosy and convenient flagship store at Star House near Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry.

Not surprisingly, most local media didn't pick up the news, as if it were something as trivial and insignificant as a pin drops into the sea. But for booklovers like me, it is yet another piece of sad news about which we should complain and grumble.

While I respect the landlord's full freedom to make its own decision based on business judgment, I can't help wondering why leasing to bookshops is such an unfavourable option, if unwelcome at all, to landlords.

Just like the silent and gradual removal of the reputable English-language Swindon Books at Ocean Centre that was not even mentioned or noticed by the media.

Of course I have no idea how bad tenants can bookstores possibly be, but knowing the former general manager of Commercial Press, Dr Chan Man-hung, I don't think Commercial Press can be among those notoriously amateur bookstores that are run by bookworms who know nothing about business. Dr Chan is a cultured and respectable publishing guru of more than 30 years with an extraordinary combination of business sense and academic commitment. He knows both sides of the game inside out and is capable of striking an amazing balance between the two. In essence, he is one of the few scholars-turned-businessmen whom I respect most.

From a cultural perspective, I can't tell you how sad it is to witness the retreat of a flagship bookstore in the heart of Hong Kong. Perhaps for most corporate landlords who don't have a clue about what difference culture really makes, having a genuine, groovy bookstore in a prime location is nothing more than a ridiculous business decision that needs to be rectified at all costs. By the same token, the corporate landlords will never know how boring and tasteless it is to have shopping malls of exactly the same shops around almost every corner of Hong Kong. Neither will they realise how stupid it is to scrap the lease renewal contract with a popular and well-respected bookstore. Having another high-end restaurant or luxury brand boutique as the tenant may bring greater economic gain, though at the expense of frequent and habitual visitors, the landlord's corporate reputation and perception in the eyes of the sophisticated.

Unfortunately, however, this is something intangible and not reflected in financial books to which nine in 10 companies in Hong Kong hardly pay any attention. They just can't be bothered less.

7 comments:

  1. I guess it is inevitable that more and more physical bookstores are shut down for various reasons:

    1) Online bookstores offer a much more diverse range of titles, which causes readers' tastes to also become more discerning, gravitating towards sophisticated niches. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time a bookstore actually has on its shelves a book I was looking for.

    2) As jobs become more mobile and require more shuffling of international talent, it just doesn't make sense to build a personal library by buying physical books anymore. Maybe it's just me being Gen Y, but I would much prefer all the books I would ever want to take with me stored in one handheld gadget.

    The model of 'content business' (music, movies, book publishing etc) is simply changing. I can't blame the mall's landlord for his/her decision. Shopping malls were never intended to be an exhibit of culture and taste to begin with and have never had the obligation to be so.

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  2. Well, you have a good point. Perhaps I'm the old-school girl who still enjoys the scent of paper and how it feels when my fingertips flip through the sheets. I don't think my career would be as mobile as bankers and lawyers and expats and having a physical library at home has been my dream since childhood.

    Of course property developers and landlords are not obliged to have any cultural exhibit on their premises. What I feel sorry is that while bookstores are still a viable business in its traditional form, it is somewhat ridiculous to learn that a landlord refuses to renew its lease to a flagship bookstore, which has somewhat developed into a landmark. At the end of the day, I believe, having a cosy restaurant or high-end fashion boutique instead of a decent bookshop can also be a form of cultural prejudice perfectly disguised under the mask of economic returns.

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  3. Another point I thought of is though publishing texts in book form may still be economically viable, environmentally it may no longer be so. The texts in themselves are, like films and music, 'non-scarce' goods because my enjoyment of it does not prevent another from enjoying. What is scarce are the seats at the theatre and the paper. The internet being a non-scarce medium of distribution (save for the disk space and bandwidth which are negligible these days) seems to be a much more efficient way of distributing non-scarce goods.

    If a flagship bookstore is closed due to some manifestation of narrow-mindedness, then what qualifies as broad-mindness? Keeping the book publishing model and a physical flagship store at all costs? Or realizing that the planet does not have many forests left and move on to a model that is a win-win situation for both readers and publishers?

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  4. I think that's a bit far-fetched though. How the publishing industry should develop is one thing, and it has nothing to do with the landlord's decision to reject a flagship bookstore's lease renewal.

    Perhaps I haven't made myself clear - Doing business is no longer a profiteering game and nothing else. Factors that are not reflected in figures should also be considered. If the publishing industry should consider switching to digital publishing or other forms of publishing that uses less paper and causes less pollution, proprety developers should also learn to pay a little bit more attention to how to make urban dwellers' lives a bit better by providing a more cultured, less commercialised environment.

    And I'm afraid I have to disagree with you about online/digital publishing. Using a computer is not necessarily more environmental-friendly. The soaring consumption of electricity and the improper disposal of hardware can be as worse as the devastation of trees. And, unfortunately, only a tiny group of people in our world have the privilege and luxury of computer access. I believe there is still a valid reason for printed books to exist for a while.

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  5. You made a very good point about electronic goods being also a source of pollution. And I agree how the publishing industry should develop and the lease should be discussed separately.

    And may I ask since the local media did not pick up the news, did you learn the story of the rejection of the lease through some other channel? Could it be just a matter of increased rent that makes it impossible for a bookstore at that location to run at a profit rather than culture prejudice per se?

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  6. Actually one or two local media did pick up the news, but not in the leading ones. And the coverage was minimal. I learnt the news from Metro, the free newspaper. About four or five years ago when I was taking my MA degree in cultural management, Dr Chan Man-hung also told me the problems of getting a lease renewal. I thought it was over, but now it is proved to be inevitable.

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  7. I didn't speak to Dr Chan about the lease renewal but I believe it is hardly possible to distinguish the economic and cultural factors in this decision. According to the Metro report, Dr Chan was quoted as saying that the landlord doesn't want to have a bookshop tenant. Of course there is an economic reason for this, but it is also obvious that bookstores are often seen as a humble business that can be easily driven off with outrageous rents.

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