Chinese Buffet – Part 9: The Bookworm Grows in China

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Before I depart on any trip, I always do some research on bookstores in the cities I’ll be visiting. (My own personal Bookstore Tourism planning, of course!) As I researched the bookstore situation in China, I learned about the large state owned operations and at least one English-language chain. But one of the most interesting places I read about was this lime green literary hub, which sits pretty atop a water pumping station in Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighborhood:

Primarily a cafe, The Bookworm is cushioned by shelves of books and supported by a growing membership and impressive events schedule. It’s a unique community library, cultural center and gathering place for both locals and travelers that opened in Beijing in 2004 and is now expanding throughout China.

I visited The Bookworm on an event night in early July, arriving several hours before the scheduled speaker, so I could enjoy the atmosphere, grab some dinner and chat with Bookworm founder Alexandra Pearson.

The first of the Bookworm’s three spacious rooms has the most social atmosphere, houses the bar, and is one of the cafe’s two smoking rooms. This is where most folks seem to hang out and chat or check email on The Bookworm’s free wifi:

Directly behind the bar area is a cozier room with lounges and a few tables. This is where members can check out books from the lending library, and also purchase select nonfiction titles that The Bookworm keeps in stock. There are cards and jewelry for sale as well:

The third room is the non-smoking room, and home to The Bookworm’s fiction collection. During the two times that I sat and worked on my laptop in this room, I observed a variety of folks browsing the shelves, meeting over coffee or dining with family and friends. The menu serves up typical Western fare with academic names like Plato and Pythagoras. The motto says it all – folks come to The Bookworm to Eat, Drink and Read:

The Bookworm operates to serve the local English-speaking population – expats and Chinese locals too, looking to improve their English language skills. Foreign travelers increasingly seek it out as well — a comfortable haven that may provide a “homesick fix”. It can be a peaceful place to relax in the afternoon, or a chill spot to party in the evening.

In the Bookworm’s back room I met Benjamin Tang, a Taiwanese-American based in Houston, TX, who has been traveling to China since 1990. Ben explained to me that when he visits China, it is usually for several weeks at a time, and what frustrates him sometimes is the lack of being able to obtain information from the “outside world”:

“After traveling in China for a couple of weeks, I somehow feel disconnected from the rest of the world. Going to the Bookworm has always helped me fill that void. The liberation of the mind is a wonderful feeling.”

The series of literary and cultural events that The Bookworm organizes throughout the year is exactly what draws Ben and so many others to visit again and again. As it approached event time, the fiction room transformed into a sea of curious faces, and by the time things began at 7:30 pm, there were about 120 people in attendance. They had all come to hear Dr. Kerry Brown talk about his new book, Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century.

The Bookworm hosts author events like this on a weekly basis, and also runs children’s programs and monthly musical events — the bar area is home to a piano too. Owner Alexandra Pearson originally came to China when her parents moved to work at the British Embassy. She left, then returned to China in the early 1990’s to study at The Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Several years later, she had a business venture for which she purchased a collection of books. When ownership changed hands, Alexandra lost the books, but a few years later was able to buy them back. Those 2,000 books formed the foundation of The Bookworm.

The majority of books that make up The Bookworm’s collection – now 20,000 strong – have come from donations. Because foreign-language books are so expensive to purchase in China, Alexandra envisioned The Bookworm as a place for exchange — of books and literary ideas. The collection, while large, is far from comprehensive (by library standards) — but the real value lies in the community and cultural discussion that the Bookworm environment fosters.

And recently the Bookworm has branched out to offer that same community atmosphere to other Chinese cities. After the Beijing location was up and running successfully, there was talk of taking the concept elsewhere. Alex teamed up with partner Peter Goff to open a second library cafe branch in Chengdu in 2006.

And the momentum continues. While traveling in China, I had a chance to meet Peter and visit the future home of Bookworm #3, positioned along one of the canals of Suzhou, a popular “water town” about 40 minutes by train from Shanghai. In mid-July, the demolition and gutting process was well underway:

A former journalist in Hong Kong, Peter eventually moved to mainland China and was a Beijing Bookworm patron first, before teaming up with his friend Alexandra. He manages the logistics of start-up and expansion outside of Beijing, while she focuses on the book collection and event content for all three locations.

As Peter explained, there is obviously a much smaller expat market outside of Beijing, but he and Alexandra still saw great value in taking The Bookworm brand elsewhere. They see the opportunity to appeal to a larger Chinese market, which means offering a greater portion of events in Chinese at these smaller locations. The English speaking population is just not large enough at the moment, so while all the books on the shelves are in English, certain programs offered in Chengdu and Suzhou will be run in Chinese. The Suzhou branch is scheduled to open sometime in mid to late September 2007:

Beginning this fall, Alexandra Pearson will be booking authors to do mini-tours of all three library locations. The Bookworm branches will also work together on their annual Literary Festival, which will take place in March 2008.

News of a growing Bookworm network is fantastic for English-language readers living in China, but it’s just as great for lit-minded travelers too. Each store has an email newsletter, so sign up if you’ll be traveling to China — it’s an easy way to keep informed about events that may be happening during your trip. Visiting a Bookworm is sure to be an excellent way to connect with locals and other travelers too. And, if you’ve got extra books in your backpack that you’re looking to unload, now you know where to donate them!