Sinan Books is the fruit of long-term collaboration between some of Shanghai’s shrewdest book lovers. The annual Shanghai Book Fair (which has been partnering with London Book Fair for some years now) and Shanghai International Literary Week, which invites foreign authors to give talks to Chinese readers, both take place every August. The masterminds of SILW thought it would be good to have book-related conversations throughout the year, instead of just one, intensive week.
In 2014, the Sinan Reading Club came into being, hosting book talks and signings every Saturday. The Sinan Mansion provided the venue (it used to be called Massenet Mansion, after the street, which was named after the French composer Jules Massenet before Liberation in 1949 – Sinan is the mandarin pinyin for Massenet); the SILW team arranged the authors and topics for the talks. Svetlana Alexievich, V.S. Naipaul, Peter Handke, Enrique Vila-Matas, Leïla Slimani and many others have attended the reading club, giving talks with Chinese writers and translators. Sinan Mansion even sponsored a bi-monthly literary journal to further this new reading culture.
But the aforementioned masterminds craved a great bookshop in downtown Shanghai (most good bookshops are in the city’s outskirts, or near a university campus). At the end of 2017, they built a cute 20 square metre pop-up bookshop in one of the small squares at Sinan Mansion. It ran for 60 days, with 3000 books in stock, and every day a different writer worked as a shop assistant to serve the customers. It was a rehearsal for a real store, and based on its success, the Sinan Mansion management team decided, in January 2018, to give over one of their best historical buildings to the bookshop, and insisted that it must open on 23 April: World Book Day.
Considering the Chinese New Year holidays in between, when the construction workers returned to their hometowns for an extended period, only two months were left for preparations. The architects worked around the clock ahead of the opening. The book selection team was more relaxed. A colleague and I were asked to select English titles for the shop, with one requirement: no junk books allowed. I was more than happy to oblige. Then we received catalogues with tens of thousands of titles, and no descriptions. I tried to choose quite a few, based on the reputation of the authors, but I began to realise how many good books by not-so-familiar writers I was missing. Then I thought about my favourite bookshop: why not form a sisterhood with the London Review Bookshop and import English titles directly from London? In February, I talked to Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books, about the idea.
Since its opening, the shop has received rave reviews from the media, and sales have been strong. The London Review Bookshop’s green room is on the first floor, along with a maze of English books, stationery and gifts. The proportion of Chinese titles to English titles is about 6:4, and sales are roughly evenly split. The LRB tote bags have sold extremely well and I’ve already ordered more. On a recent national holiday, Labor Day, the crowds were unprecedented, and customers had to queue to get in.
SINAN BOOKS, No. 517, Middle Fuxing Road, Shanghai, China.
Photographs: © CreatAR Images