James ran a bookstore 15 years ago, when it was not common in Hong Kong to have social activities within bookstores.
James: Let’s talk about books. 15 years ago, I opened a bookstore. I ran an upstairs bookstore [in Hong Kong, the bookstores that are not visible on the ground level are called upstairs bookstores (樓上書店)] for five years, and in the end I had to leave the business. That time period for me was a big change for me, because we created a positive impact to the bookstore industry in Hong Kong. There are many upstairs bookstores and independent bookstores today but 15 years ago, we managed a lot of events and did some art exhibitions and we have had concerts in our bookstore many times and we had theater performances, too. I have done all the crazy and the strange things in that bookstore. The experience at the bookstore was very interesting and it allowed me to think that I can use books as a medium, and I can use books to do a lot of art and cultural related activities.
During that time, we had a lot of media interviews: from Hong Kong, from mainland China, and we would have some Japanese media who interviewed us. It was because we opened a new style of bookstore. Because this was 15 years ago, and at that time the bookstores were just selling books. Bookstores were not about activities. Of course, during that time Taiwan’s Eslite Bookstore had also opened and they would do a lot of activities. Hong Kong didn’t have a lot of these kinds of bookstores. I used this bookstore in Hong Kong to do a lot of activities and because I have studied art management, I would be able to pull a lot of art-related activities into my bookstore. It was funny that in our bookstore, we hosted many concerts. Many independent musicians didn’t have a place to produce CDs, and they didn’t have people who would want to do their concerts. We would work as organizers and producers to make concerts possible, for example at an art center, or in Macao. We would use the name of a bookstore to do this. We also made a CD, by the way, called Invisible Cities. We organized a bunch of local musicians to make a CD.
We attracted attention into the norms of bookstore operation in five years; we did a lot of different experiments to allow people to have a new imagination, that if you run a bookstore, you can do all kinds of things. As for choosing books, we also chose very well. With these activities, the bookstore was quite popular.
The problem was, we were popular but that didn’t mean we could sell many of our books. For us who sells books, we will choose books that are not popular, like best sellers. We chose very good and rare books, and people were satisfied that in Hong Kong there is this kind of bookstore, but does that mean the bookstore can sell a lot of these books? No, that doesn’t mean the bookstore can sell a lot of these books. Would you be able to regularly sell books? No, not a lot—well, it’s not enough. We did sell some books, but it wasn’t enough revenue to continue. In Hong Kong, the rental fees are expensive. I was in Causeway Bay that time, which was an expensive district, and I couldn’t this bookstore eventually.