In the digital era, traditional bookstores face challenges from online rivals that not only let readers browse for books when they are nowhere near the high street but gives them the chance to read an e-book anywhere they can connect to the Internet.
Now, bookstores in Heilongjiang province are fighting back by developing a new way to grow.
Gogol Bookstore, in Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang, has found its niche by creating a platform for the exchange of Sino-Russian culture.
The store, which opened in October 2014, is a branch of the State-owned Heilongjiang Xinhua Bookstore Group.
Located on a 100-year-old street in the European-style city, the neoclassical look of the building leads many customers to feel as if they could already be in Russia or a European country.
Customers have dubbed it “the most beautiful European-style bookstore in China”.
“In 2015, we had more than 1,000 customers a day and a sales volume of more than six million yuan ($927,600) for the whole year,” said Han Li, general manager of the bookstore. “We broke even in our first year, which is an unexpected thing for a State-owned bookstore that does not sell textbooks.”
And that is largely because the bookstore sells much more than books.
It also offers reading spaces and Western food, including specialist coffee and steaks.
“We have created the brand of Gogol Beefsteak, which has been welcomed by customers and which accounts for 30 to 40 percent of our sales volume,” said Han.
And on the shelves of the bookstore, which is named after a famous Russian writer, there is a wealth of Russian language books on literature and art.
“In Harbin, there are many Russian people and lots of the local citizens have deep feelings for Russian culture,” said Qu Bolong, president of the Heilongjiang Xinhua Bookstore Group. “We hope the bookstore offers a broad platform for the exchange of Sino-Russian culture.
In 2015, inspired by the success of the bookstore, Heilongjiang Education Publishing Press set up the Gogol Bookstore Editorial Department to further the exchange of Sino-Russian publications.
In cooperation with Far Eastern Federal University, the editorial department set about promoting “reading Russian and Chinese classical literature and art works”.
The representatives from both Russia and China will work together on choosing pieces of classical literature and art that are suitable for teenagers and they will be published in Russian and Chinese simultaneously in both countries.
“We hope that reading the classics will promote reading awareness among the public and that the bookstore will become a platform for the publishing industry to get this information out,” said Zhao Li, director of the Heilongjiang Education Publishing Press.
The editorial department also got behind a book series called Day Night, which aims to spread Eurasian culture in China and Harbin’s regional culture overseas.
Following publication of the first series — the City of Churches — and the second series — the City of Music — plans are unfolding for more.
In March 2015, Gogol Bookstore signed an agreement with the nearby Russian province of Primorskiy Krai to set up the Russian and Chinese Teenagers’ Reading Alliance.
The establishment of the Sino-Russian Teenagers Cultural Exchange Base at the bookstore has also contributed, making it the first choice of Russian students studying in Harbin who visit the store not only for Russian language books but for cultural displays and performances.
Gogol Bookstore opened the first mini bookstore theater in China. In December 2014, it staged a Christmas event named An Elegant Meeting with Sissi that ran for five consecutive days.
And the bookstore has inspired others to follow the trail it blazed.
In March 2015, Heihe Xinhua Bookstore was renamed Pushkin Bookstore after an upgrade and realignment.
Heihe, a town that sits on the China-Russia border in Heilongjiang province, has seen a steady rise in the number of Russian tourists during the past 10 years.
Located on the most prosperous commercial pedestrian street, a statue of Pushkin in front of the bookstore attracts many Russian tourists.
“The bookstore aroused strong feelings among Russian people and the Russian media reported on its opening,” said Qu.
“Gogol Bookstore and Pushkin Bookstore are two successful examples of traditional bookstores that have upgraded and transformed, but indiscriminately imitating their model is not practicable,” said Yu Xiaobei, deputy general manager of Heilongjiang Publishing Group. “In Heilongjiang, there are 83 Xinhua Bookstores. In the future, we will transform them according to their own characteristics step by step in order to achieve development during the digital revolution.”