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Mina Choi Tenison

Bofei Yan

Founder of Jifeng Books, Shanghai, China

On a recent afternoon over a cup of coffee, we sat down with Yan Bofei, the founder and the president of Ji Feng Bookstore, which has eight outlets in Shanghai, as well as a new branch in Taipei. With its large stock of literary and philosophical books, the bookstore has become the gathering place for Chinese intellectuals, who refer to it as one of Shanghai's "cultural landmarks".


that's: Eight years ago, there were very few private bookstores in Shanghai. What prompted you to enter the market?

Bofei: It happened completely by accident. After I left my position as a researcher and philosopher at the Academy of Social Sciences, I sold magazines and newspapers at a few metro stops, and in 1997 opened the first Ji Feng Bookstore. The space was small, but the business was unbelievable.


that's: Were you surprised by the public's appetite for books?

BF: It didn't take me by surprise, being an avid reader myself. Before we opened, most bookstores were state-owned and the few private bookstores were very limited in size and selection. The first four years, our business grew by 30-40 per cent annually.


that's: Has the public's taste for books changed since you opened?

BF: They are reading many more books in translation, for example The Harry Potter series and The Da Vinci Code sell very well. Books for teenage girls have also become very popular. One of the hottest authors in this genre is Guo Jingming, who routinely sells 300,000-500,000 copies. Also, books that reflect the recent social and economic changes in China sell extremely well. Last year, two of my top selling books were non-fiction titles; I could not keep these books in stock – they sold out very quickly.


that's: What titles are popular in Taipei?

BF: The Taiwanese flock towards traditional titles, such as Dream of the Red Chamber. They also buy biographies of Chairman Mao and Jiang Zemin, and any books on Karl Marx.


that's: Which books are currently your top sellers?

BF: The two top sellers now are The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and The Man Who Changed China, Robert Lawrence Kuhn's biography of Jiang Zemin. Both books have sold over a million copies nationwide. I think another bestseller will be Xiong Di (Brothers), written by Yu Hua, the author of To Live; it's his first book in ten years and we sold seveal hundred copies in just two weeks.


that's: Did you ever pick any duds?

BF: Not really. I personally pick all the titles we carry and I have a close relatriohship with the publishers whom I advise on the latest reading trends and tastes. If I had to pick one 'mistake' it would be Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (in translation). It was a great book about Allan Bloom, but it just didn't sell very well.


that's: Tell us about your relationship with publishers. How have you been able to influence the titles they choose?

BF: I collaborate with them on fifty to sixty titles each year. Most of these books would not have been published otherwise. For example, last year I pushed for the publication of two books written by Neil Postman, who was previously unknown in China. This year I helped publish works by Ayn Rand (Fountainhead).


that's: How do you see the future of the book retailing industry in China? Is there room for growth?

BF: It's very difficult now especially with strong competition from the Internet, computer games, and television. Although our sales our increasing, they are not growing as fast as they were before. Our profits are up, but the actual volume of books we sell is down. People are reading less and the popularity of the alternative entertainment sources mentioned above makes it hard on us.


that's: Do you see yourself becoming a super store, something like Borders which sells a range of products besides books?

BF: I'll never do that. Books are the key to civilization. Now that I'm in this business – albeit by accident – I'll find a way to make it work. Otherwise, computer games, the Internet and other such distractions will destroy the fabric of traditional society. If people stop reading books, then it's the end of civilization.

Jifeng Bookstores

1) Shanxi Nan Lu near Huaihai Lu,

inside metro station, line no.1 (6318 9188)

2) Huangpi Nan Lu near Huaihai Lu,

inside metro station, line no.1 (6318 9188 ext. 71229)

That's Shanghai - July 2005

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