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A Time to Read, a Time to Open a Bookstore

Lee Tsz-ming (left) and Lee Ting-hin (right)

Operating a bookstore in Hong Kong is extremely difficult without abundant capital. Some street-level bookstores have had to move to upper-floor locations because of high rent. A group of courageous CUHK students rose to the challenge in their hope to give new lives to old books, fortunately with support from many parties. Settled in S.H. Ho College in January this year, Timing Bookstore promotes a new reading experience alongside selling books. Will it bring CUHK a new reading culture?

Ready for Opportunity

The story of Timing Bookstore started from the I‧CARE Book Festival in 2012. Close to 10,000 books donated by enthusiastic alumni, teachers, and students were on display in Sir Run Run Shaw Hall. To facilitate the circulation of books and knowledge, students and staff were encouraged to read and take home their favourite books. This hugely

popular activity was held for a few days only, which prompted several students to ponder how they could continue this meaningful and fun event. Lee Tsz-ming, a graduate of the Department of Japanese Studies, was one of them. 'There were five or six of us in the very beginning. Our common friends had introduced us to each other so we could exchange ideas. We shared the same goal and readily devoted our time and effort to open a bookstore that pays more attention to the reading experience.'

The founding members of Timing studied cases of bookstore operation around the world, including in Japan and Taiwan. They also asked owners of local bookstores for advice. Hong Kong Reader, a bookstore opened by CUHK alumni, is one of their learning models. 'We learned a lot from them but we clearly know that we are not setting up another Hong Kong Reader. We would like to do something new and different.'

Timing's members make good use of various media to promote themselves. They use Facebook to exchange information about books and activities, and set up counters to collect and sell second-hand books in the community. Thanks to this, the bookstore managed to make a name for itself before its official opening, and attracted a growing following. Lee Ting-hin, Year 1 student of Social Science, met the members of the bookstore in Cultural Square on campus and signed up to join after a casual conversation. The bookstore currently has a team of about 20 people from various Faculties.

Selling books is only one part of the bookstore's business. Lee Tsz-ming frankly said that not all members enjoy reading but some of them enjoy creating good reading space and promoting the reading experience. Lee Ting-hin is from the 'experiment group', responsible for the ideas of reading experiments. For instance, 'Arranged Marriage' wherein a book is wrapped with only a sentence from it written on the cover. The exercise is meant to enable people and books to meet by chance and create opportunities for reading something unexpected. 'Suspended Books' invites people to buy a book for the next visitor; 'Small Podium' allows people to meet regularly to share their knowledge; 'Flash Mob Poem Reading', co-organized with 'Tolo Poem', features live music and readings of poems about food in the College's communal dining hall. These experiments greatly enrich the possibility of reading and set Timing apart from other bookstores.

In February 2013, after a talk between the Vice-Chancellor Prof. Joseph J.Y. Sung and students, the bookstore members managed to catch the attention of Professor Sung and introduce the concept of the bookstore to him. Professor Sung offered them his moral support, but the University could not provide a space for the bookstore. The members proceeded to knock on the doors of the Colleges. 'Prof. Samuel Sun, Master of S.H. Ho College, told us the College wants to motivate students to turn innovation to reality,' Lee Tsz-ming said. 'We subsequently won the College's Young Entrepreneur Programme and were given a 300 sq. ft. indoor space on the ground floor of Chan Chun Ha Hall on campus to run the bookstore.' The I‧CARE programme also provided them with the team trading fund which endows them with the freedom to explore possibilities.

The Real Fight

The bookstore has been open for nearly two months and its 'income' has been much better than the members expected. Lee Ting-hin said the term 'income' should include sales revenue and the number of books donated. 'We are now in “high season”, i.e. school term. Sales are pretty good, enough to pay sundries and the wages of our part-time staff. As for collecting books, because we now have a physical location plus extensive media coverage, many people take the initiative to contact us.' Timing takes almost any books except magazines and damaged books. The members have learned that 'every book has its own reader'. Sometimes books that they think would take much time to sell are snapped up once they hit the shelves. This also proves the bookstore's idea that books and readers can be linked up by chance. The 'best-sellers' are low-priced books with interesting content written in simplified Chinese; literature and books on history and philosophy; as well as books about hot topics such as Islam and the Islamic State. The bookstore also sells consignment items of local artists.

The bookstore's experiments have triggered discussions. One example is the bookstore's practice of arranging books based on their colour rather than their content. The bookstore's purpose is to change reading habits, but it received criticism for ignoring the books' contents. Lee Tsz-ming said the members were surprised that the practice promptly attracted the attention of the Chinese University Student Press. 'They wrote a very good article about us. After reading it we reviewed our book classification method and most of the books have been rearranged. We thank the writer not only for valuable advice, but also for stimulating us to rethink the connection of book cover colour and content. Have a look at the shelves of detective fiction. You can see Japanese detective fiction always sports black-and-white covers whereas Western detective fiction likes to use black as well.'

Keep Experimenting

Since March, Timing has begun to sell new books. The staff quipped that it is their latest experiment. 'New books' means never-used books that may have been published for a long time, which can form thematic booklists with the existing second-hand books. These may include a list comprising a brand new Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: Fragments alongside dozens of books about love, so that readers could explore different aspects of love. 'New books' also refers to books which contain exciting content that we may never have read in our lives, such as Avesta, the religious book of Zoroastrians. It must be definitely interesting for students.

Timing has signed a one-year contract with S.H. Ho College. After a year the College will review the operation of the bookstore and decide whether to renew the tenancy. Without a doubt, the members of the bookstore have come a long way to realize their dreams. They are now thinking about how to improve income and strengthen publicity in order to grow independently beyond CUHK campus, and attract more people to join them, which was their original intention.


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