A 24-Hour Bookstore Turns Its Final Page

Eslite’s Dunnan Branch Closes Its Doors

2020 / May

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by Phil Newell

When Robert Wu, founder of the Eslite Group, was 38, he fell seriously ill, and lost a lot of blood in surgery, nearly dying. This brush with death opened his eyes anew, and he began to think about the meaning of the things he had pursued in his life. He discovered that he not only wanted to open a bookstore for culture and the arts, but also wanted to create “a haven for the soul,” ­using books, music, and paintings to create a tranquil atmosphere that would welcome every spirit seeking a restful harbor.

In 1989, the first Eslite Bookstore opened on Taipei City’s Ren’ai Circle, moving to its present location on Dunhua South Road in 1996. In the 20 years since then, except for one remodeling, the “Dunnan” branch (from the dun of Dunhua and nan for “south”) has changed little. Compared with newer branches it looks less fashionable, but it retains that charm which so deeply impressed and moved Eslite’s earliest customers. This one and only “24-hour bookstore” in all of Taiwan has kept a lamp lit for people who want to read at any time of day or night, providing warmth to souls with all different types of needs.

A spiritual harbor

To get to the bookstore part of Eslite’s Dunnan branch, located on the second floor, you have to climb a flight of white stairs. Walking this path from story to story is like preparation for the soul. “As you slowly walk up the stairs, you are preparing, counting down with anticipation, as if walking a red carpet.” For artist Kristy Chu, strolling into the bookstore is a kind of ritual leading to delightful surprises.

Under soft lighting and with elegant music playing, there is a corridor on the white marble floor running all the way to the back of the store. Along both sides of the cor­ridor are elevated wooden platforms with wooden steps leading up to them. There are always people sitting on the little staircases, heads resting in their hands, reading. Others sit cross-legged on the wooden flooring, halfway through their books, while still others browse the bookshelves, carefully stepping past the readers on the floor.

It is virtually silent in the store. Except for the classical music coming from speakers, one hears only the clatter of books striking bookcases as employees keep the shelves in order and the patter of footsteps on floorboards. From morning to night, this is the characteristic soundscape of Eslite’s Dunnan store.

Arranging books thematically

When bookstore employees go back and forth arranging books, it’s not a case of making a fuss over nothing, but rather that “Eslite has its own attitudes and ideas about display.” Veteran publisher Chen Ying-ching recalls that when Eslite first opened, what made the greatest impression on people, besides the elegant interior design, was the way the books were displayed. Eslite broke with tradition, sorting books by theme rather than by publishing house or academic subject. “Lifestyle” is the most prominent example.

“Today everyone is familiar with this category, but in fact it was an Eslite innovation.” Chen Ying-ching says that the quality of life in Taiwan was steadily improving at the time, and people were seeking to enrich their lives. Taking note of this trend, Eslite created the “Lifestyle” category, grouping together books on subjects like gardening, birdwatching, and hiking, thereby broadening readers’ notions about leisure.

Dividing books thematically was not only a response to the changing times but also provided readers with choices beyond their own life experiences. At the same time, it helped open up new markets for publishers, creating new linkages between the up- and downstream segments of the book market. This is why other bookstores began to copy Eslite’s unique way of categorizing books.

Putting good books front and center

There are variations in the books selected for different Eslite branches.

For the branch under Taipei Main Station, where there is brisk foot traffic, the focus is on mass-market novels. However, the Dunnan branch still adheres to its founder’s original vision, emphasizing culture, the arts, and the social sciences. Even if at present the market for arts books is steadily declining, the section in the Dunnan branch for such books remains the largest in the store; they haven’t reduced it in size as the market has shrunk.

Another thing that has stayed constant at the Dunnan branch has been “putting good books front and center, where they will be seen.” The Dunnan branch doesn’t focus on bestsellers. You will discover from the table right at the entrance that the books displayed there are not bestselling works by famous authors, but are selected titles that meet “a certain standard,” such as Nobel-Prize-winning literature. “It’s not easy to get into books like these, but they ‘make an impression’ once you have read them.” Chou Yeh-shen, Eslite Dunnan’s manager, has been working there for eight years and knows what the branch’s longtime customers like.

“Eslite is quite experimental, making it easier for publishers to find opportunities to broaden sales for new authors and new types of books. In contrast, other outlets are relatively conservative.” Chen Ying-ching explains that the approach at traditional bookshops is to choose books based on experience, promoting only writers and genres that have been popular in the past, whereas Eslite has the courage to try new things.

A beacon in the night

For residents of Taipei’s eastern district, the Dunnan Eslite is like a lighthouse, illuminating an alternative path amidst the bustle of urban night life. As the night deepens, people from various professions finish work and come to the Dunnan branch to replenish their souls. Figures from the world of entertainment, including Jay Chou, Janine Chang, and Kevin Tsai, have been spotted in the store. Then there are chefs, just off work and still wearing their Crocs, who come straight from their kitchens to flip through the rich array of foreign cookbooks. Also, creative people from the media can often be found standing in the magazine section browsing the latest trends.

The Dunnan branch of Eslite is not only a place where people of the night can recharge their batteries, it is also a story house where wishes can come true. Once there was a nurse working the night shift, and a child she was caring for suddenly wanted to read a certain book. At the time, the patient’s condition was very unstable. Not wanting to have any regrets, the nurse hurried to the Dunnan branch and found the book. Recalling the event, the nurse said that it’s fortunate indeed that Taiwan has this 24-hour bookstore.

It is not only at night that the Dunnan branch shines: it also exhibits the rich spectrum of life in the early morning hours before people go to work. Many high-ranking managerial types, dressed in suits, with slightly graying hair and some wrinkles on their faces, use the time before work to skim business-oriented books and magazines. Next come mothers pushing baby carriages, with their heads in books as they rock their strollers, immersed in the satisfying tranquility of the moment.

Before opening Eslite’s Xinyi branch, Robert Wu often sat in the coffee shop on the second floor of the Dunnan store, watching people come and go. Observing readers’ expressions and the looks of concentration in their eyes was the best repayment for his dedication to “treating people and books hospitably.”

Timeless memories

The challenges Eslite currently faces include not only new-style bookstores such as Tsutaya, but also Internet booksellers. Although Eslite has its own online bookstore, sales are relatively weak. Chen Ying-ching laughs as he says, “Perhaps the brick-and-mortar stores are too successful.”

Eslite has not only invested a great deal of thought into product display, but has also sponsored an extensive program of in-store activities. Since its launch in 1997, the “Eslite Forum” has invited experts to give lectures on everything from fine arts, architecture, and film to history, literature, and trends. From several hundred lectures in its first year to several thousands annually now, the forum has been a driving force behind the quest for knowledge in society.

Author Yang Zhao, a regular forum speaker, recalls that although the more “bizarre” courses he has offered—such as ones on the poetry of Baudelaire and Derrida’s concept of deconstruction—have no practical value and require out-of-class reading, there are always more than 100 students in attendance. Always packed, his courses have been offered continually without interruption. “At Eslite, the imposs­ible becomes possible.” Yang feels that Eslite has made knowledge appealing.

Besides the forum, Eslite has also held a variety of activities including exhibitions and performances, allowing book lovers to wander around “between reading and non-­reading.” Moreover, the Dunnan branch has been the site of many “firsts” for events. In 1995, before the Dunnan store relocated, they held an 18-hour non-stop concert featuring a succession of bands. A series of outdoor concerts held in 1996, which included classical, rock, electronic, and folk music, was staged over 13 consecutive weekend nights.

For over 20 years, book lovers have accumulated countless memories of their interactions with the Eslite’s Dunnan branch. When news broke that the branch would close on May 31 of 2020, people were dumbfounded. Reluctant to see the store go, they’ve come from all around to say their goodbyes.

Although Eslite has announced that it will continue its 24-hour bookstore operations, memories are all that will remain of the Dunnan branch. A reporter once asked Robert Wu if he’d ever close Eslite’s flagship outlet. Wu answered in a casual tone, saying that the important thing was what Dunnan had given its customers—if it left them with good memories and impressions, that would be enough.      

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