Is a 24-hour "nightclub for books," where hipsters and bookworms alike hang out all night reading and chatting, the solution to the woes of the modern bookstore?
The Eslite Group, which owns an enterprising chain of bookstores in Taiwan and Hong Kong, thinks so. While bookstores in countries across the world struggle to survive, business at the Taiwanese book chain is booming, and observers credit the chain's unusual model.
The Eslite bookstore is open 24 hours "and has more night owl visitors than most Western bookstores could dream of during their daytime hours," writes CNN, which first reported on the unique chain in an article entitled, "Nightclubs for literature? Why book selling is booming in Taiwan."
The secret? The bookstore is as much about books as it is about design, food, and culture, making it an attractive hangout for customers of all stripes.
"It's a cool place, a bit like Soho in New York," Huang Yu Han, a customer at the Taipei store told CNN. "Many cool people hang out here. Some come here to read, others just to kill time and meet friends. It's like a place for modern culture and it's close to some of the best nightclubs and bars."
The 24-hour store at Taipei's Dunhua Road location has five floors, each dedicated to different categories, like fashion, music, food or events. Customers – which include both middle-aged literati and young hipsters – stand or sit on small steps, reading tables, or on the floor reading and chatting quietly as classical music emanates from speakers. Many stores also have small cafes and restaurants where customers can enjoy a book or hang out with friends.
The five-story store opened its first branch in Taipei in 1989. Some 25 years later, it runs 42 stores in Taiwan, one in Hong Kong and has plans to expand in China, according to CNN.
That, at a time when bookstores are closing in the US and UK.
In 2011, bookseller Borders Books shut down its stores in the US. Barnes & Noble, the last major book retailer in the US, has been shutting down many of its stores as it struggles to compete with online rivals like Amazon.
And in the UK, a third of all independent bookstores have closed in the last decade, according to the Booksellers Association.
The Eslite Group, meanwhile, has reported revenues of $425 million in 2013, and sales are expected to increase by 8 percent this year.
While everyone in the publishing world is going digital, Eslite credits its success to a return to books and connection.
"It is our belief that the more digital the society [becomes], the more we treasure the warmth of the interconnection," company spokesman Timothy Wang told CNN. "This core idea makes Eslite barely impacted by the changes of the industry."
Can Western booksellers take a page from Taiwan's booming book market?
It's not clear the model would work here. For starters, some bookstores, like Barnes & Noble, have already begun focusing less on books and more on creating a comfortable environment for hanging out – much like the Eslite stores. Like Eslite, the chain's stores feature in-store cafes, soft music, couches, and children's rooms. They have also begun diversifying their product, with increasing amounts of floor space devoted to gifts, stationary, toys, and more.
Eslite and Barnes & Noble share another common challenge: most customers enjoy the bookstore for hours, reading books, flipping through magazines, and meeting friends, eventually leaving empty-handed.
"It's ... not clear whether the company will be able to replicate its 24-hour model outside Taiwan where the bookstores have become a cultural phenomenon," writes CNN.
Nonetheless, we love the idea of an all-night bookstore-cum-lounge. It's innovative problem-solving like this that might help save our bookstores.