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Multi-Story Buildings: The Growing Success of Picture Book Shops

With reading picture books an ever-more popular pastime among many Chinese parents and their children alike, stores dedicated to providing this in-demand illustrated literature can now be found in even the smallest of mainland cities.

Photo: Literary lair: A 300-square-metre picture book store in Beijing.
Literary lair: A 300-square-metre picture book store in Beijing.
Photo: Literary lair: A 300-square-metre picture book store in Beijing.
Literary lair: A 300-square-metre picture book store in Beijing.

Reading picture books together is now a popular element of parent-child education and bonding across the mainland. As a result, picture book stores in a variety of formats have already opened in a number of China's major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and are beginning to emerge in many of the smaller cities and towns.

As the term suggests, words play a secondary role in such publications, with the emphasis very much on the illustrations. The combination of words and pictures, though, not only tells a story but also helps spark children's imaginations, while helping to forge closer familial bonds.

Family Libraries

A number of the better-known picture book outlets – including Yourbay (www.yourbaychina.com), Poplar Kid's Republic (www.poplar.com.cn), Senior John (www.hui-ben.com.cn) and pkbkok.com – are almost household names in many provincial capitals. Their success is very much down to their innovative approach, with many such retailers providing reading tutorials, parent-child handicraft workshops, traditional Chinese courses and even picture book tours.

Photo: A compact basement book store.
A compact basement book store.
Photo: A compact basement book store.
A compact basement book store.

The majority of these outlets are part of well-known chains. Yourbay, for example, now has some 600 branches in more than 160 cities, with the business having doubled in size over the past two years. Two other retailers in the sector – Senior John and Pkbkok – each have more than 300 franchisees.

Typically, franchisees in the picture book store market have access to hardware and software support from the ultimate brand owner. Such support includes help with library management, book-loan systems, book lists, text sourcing, staff training, offline activity programmes and promotions.

Usually, picture book stores operate on a membership basis and, in tier-one cities, annual fees can be RMB600 or above. There are also additional charges for any add-on services.

In terms of operational requirements, just one person can manage a small picture book store with a just enough bookshelves to serve some 100 families and complement the local public-library system. By and large, though, the revenues from book rentals alone are not sufficient to sustain a business, with many operators opting to provide supplementary services.

Photo: A public WeChat bookstore account.
A public WeChat bookstore account.
Photo: A public WeChat bookstore account.
A public WeChat bookstore account.

Many of these additional services can also help to maintain customer loyalty, particularly in the case of extended activities and educational initiatives. Yourbay, for instance, runs a programme designed to help build a family library for children under the age of three. It offers guidance on appropriate children's literature, as well as providing both online and offline consultations. It also offers workshops on reading difficulties and child-rearing.

In the case of Senior John, it has introduced an online book ordering service, which sees the chosen publication delivered to the borrower's home for free. This allows customers on a limited budget to read more at no added cost, while the online search facility allows parents to select just the right book from the comfort of their own homes.

Pkbkok also offers an online book-loan service and has developed a dedicated smartphone app. With a distinct emphasis on serving communities, the group is focusing on developing convenient bookstores that act as links between consumers and cultural/recreational businesses.

Small is Beautiful

Poplar Kid's Republic is a picture book outlet set in the mid-to-high-end business district near Beijing's East Third Ring Road. With the highest online user rating of all such stores, it is a subsidiary of Poplar Publishing, the largest publisher of children's books in Japan. It addition to its Beijing store, it also has branches in a number of other cities, including Shanghai and Shenyang.

Far from large, Poplar Kid's Republic's flagship Beijing store can only comfortably accommodate some 10 families. All of its bookshelves, though, are neatly arranged and clearly divided into different sections for ease of access.

Photo: Poplar Kid’s Republic.
Poplar Kid's Republic.
Photo: Poplar Kid’s Republic.
Poplar Kid's Republic.

The store stocks about 2,000 picture books, more than 90% of which are Chinese versions of Japanese titles. It operates on a "membership + retailing" model, with paid-up subscribers permitted to borrow a fixed number of picture books, with accrued reward points entitling them to take part in any additional activities organised by the store.

The thinking behind the chain's Beijing store was to create a "small but beautiful" outlet. With this in mind, the store's manager sees its décor as hugely important, and its overall look is changed on a monthly basis.

Explaining his thinking, he said: "We change our décor with the seasons, just as children wear different clothing at different times of the year. In the summer, we may feature insects, while the winter will see us adopt a snowy theme."

Highlighting why she and her son frequent the store, one young mother said: "This place is very close to my son's school and we often drop by on our way home. We find the window display very appealing and always find something interesting inside.

"Although I could buy cheaper online, some things cannot be replicated by the click of a mouse – like the joy of the two of us searching out the perfect book together."

As well as its lending facility, Poplar Kid's Republic also organises weekend parent-child picture book reading sessions and handicraft workshops. A winter hats party, a Halloween reading and the making of scented bags to mark the Double Ninth Festival all featured as part of its recent activities.

Restaurants and Picture Book Tourism

In terms of offline activities, Poplar Kid's Republic organises one or two picture book tours to Japan each year, and arranges special meet-the-author events for young readers. Last year, one such tour included a visit to Tokyo's Doraemon Museum, a repository dedicated to Japan's famous blue animated robot cat, and a chance to meet a picture book luminary in Nagaoka, a city some 80 minutes north of Tokyo by high-speed rail link.

Photo: Cooks and books in downtown Beijing.
Cooks and books in downtown Beijing.
Photo: Cooks and books in downtown Beijing.
Cooks and books in downtown Beijing.
Photo: Bookshop birthday party preparations.
Bookshop birthday party preparations.
Photo: Bookshop birthday party preparations.
Bookshop birthday party preparations.

Apart from tourism, picture book-themed restaurants are also seen as a promising area for future development. One such establishment is said to be proving hugely popular in North Beijing. Engagingly cozy, the restaurant in question is divided into three sections – a dining area, a baking island and a story-telling/fun area. The dining area has just 10 tables, while the baking island is reserved for cookery lessons. The fun area features a special book wall holding a stock of many well-regarded items of children's literature.

According to its owner, the restaurant also offers a special birthday party service at a cost of about RMB6,000 for up to eight families. Following the success of this first establishment, plans are now in place to open a second elsewhere in Beijing.

In addition to the benefits to young readers, the growing popularity of picture book stores has also provided a valuable fillip to the jobs market, with a number of new opportunities opening up for book designers, curriculum planners, reading tutors, new-media specialists and event organisers.

Shen Jun, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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