By PAT GAO
Eslite offers a wide selection of titles from bestsellers to interesting, yet more obscure publications. (Photo by Chang Su-ching)
In March 1989, a small bookstore that specialized in arts and humanities opened its doors in downtown Taipei. It was named "Eslite," the medieval French form of "elite." Founder and president Wu Ching-yu had begun with a business selling kitchen equipment to hotels, but later reorganized it as a book enterprise. By the time the business moved to the present site on Taipei's Dunhua South Road in 1995, the expanded bookstore had become the headquarters of an increasing number of Eslite shops that seek to foster an artistic, stylish dimension to bookselling around Taiwan. Currently, there are more than 40 Eslite bookstores in northern, central and southern Taiwan as well as one established in the eastern region's Taitung City in 2007. There are also a couple of specialty Eslite stores solely devoted to music, children's books or stationery items. In recent years, as the enterprise has developed to include shopping complexes that house boutiques selling trendy designer goods, Eslite has garnered an average annual business volume of around NT$10 billion (US$303 million). As something of a cultural showcase in Taiwan, Eslite has found its way into many international lists of recommended tourist destinations, including a 2004 issue of Time magazine that selected Eslite's Dunhua store as a must-see in Asia for its well-designed, hospitable space welcoming readers with soothing music--24 hours a day! Many tourists, particularly those from Hong Kong, Japan and mainland China, also visit Eslite's flagship eight-floor store, the chain's largest, which opened in 2006 in the Xinyi District of eastern Taipei, the capital city's commercial hub. Liou Wei-gong, an associate professor of sociology at Soochow University in Taipei, says that even today, with international travel becoming quite common for Taiwanese people, visitors still find Eslite a unique place with its own style and feeling...
"People come to Eslite not simply to buy books, but also to be immersed in an aura and a cultural environment," says Lee Hsin-ping, an author of several books on creativity and a major literary force behind a number of Eslite's promotional projects. Manager Lee Yu-hwa believes that interior arrangements such as dŽcor and book displays are a basic, "easy" part of a bookstore's management that requires only money and good designers. "The point is how our visitors and participants in our activities feel about our management style," Lee Yu-hwa says. "We seek not only to have attractive displays of books, but also to try to promote reading through related activities." Eslite provides space for reading clubs, lectures and artwork exhibitions as well as performing arts. These events bring people to Eslite stores and, more significantly, create a multi-layered cultural arena as a natural and meaningful extension of the act of reading or the pursuit of knowledge. This, Lee Yu-hwa notes, is the same underlying goal of the various Eslite activities, including the regular recommendations of books and the publication of the store's periodical The Reader.