Creativity and community: Macao’s independent bookstores are changing with the times
Running an independent bookstore in Macao can be challenging to say the least. But some bookshops in Macao have developed new tactics to attract customers and create a sense of community in the age of Kindles, Audible and iPhones.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only taken nearly 2 million lives worldwide since the outbreak started in 2020, but it has also battered economies across the globe.
Many businesses in Macao have experienced financial losses and it’s been particularly tough for independent bookstores – an age-old industry that started its decline in Macao well before the pandemic.
From giant online retailers to ebooks to Audible, virtual reading experiences present cutthroat competition that’s forced many bookstores around the world to close their doors.
In Macao, the trend is no different. Independent bookstores are doing everything they can to survive amid online alternatives, a diverse range of languages, high rents, and the ongoing pandemic.
We sat down with five local indie bookstores in Macao to find out how they’re staying relevant, popular and, most importantly, in business.
Pin-to Livros & Musica:
A community of music and book lovers
Just a two-minute walk from the Ruins of St Paul’s, Pin-to Livros & Musica is home to a wide range of books covering the arts, architecture, history and contemporary literature, alongside stacks and stacks of vinyl records. Most of the books are in Chinese, though you can still find a few options in Portuguese and English.
The shop has a modern, quirky and sophisticated vibe, which has garnered a dedicated local following over the years. Pin-to – which literally means ‘Where?’ in Cantonese – originally opened on the second floor of a tiny building in the busy Largo do Senado in 2003 and grew from there.
In the early to mid-2010s, it had become a pilgrimage destination for bookworms keen to listen to cool music and browse the shelves. In 2017, the bookshop moved to the community area near Praça de Luís de Camões.
“We wanted to reach our target readers – the local community. It was the right move,” says owner Anson Ng, a jazz enthusiast and expert. “We also made many changes to how we operate and it worked. We’re here for anyone who wants to pick up something inspiring – but, most of all, we’re here for our loyal community.”
While many businesses cite high rents as their main challenge, Pin-to’s rents don’t break the bank. Ng says they’re lucky to have a supportive landlord who respects the industry. They have also introduced new services, like an online ordering service via social media, which enables people to get their hands on recent releases and bestsellers without any delays.
“It’s hard for bookshops to survive nowadays,” he admits, “but some of Macao’s local ones seem to have found their own way to get along, like us. We all have our own characteristics.”
Perhaps it’s the mix of books and music. “We pick the music we sell based on our own interests, which we believe matches the interests of our customer base,” he says, noting that they’re still selling music despite the rise of online streaming programmes. “We are doing okay.”
Spreading a love of storytelling
Located just off the busy Avenida do Ouvidor Arriaga, Cuchi-Cuchi Bookhouse is a parent’s dream. This small, quirky bookshop specialises in Chinese and English children’s books, arts and crafts.
There are toys for the young ones to play with inside the store and every weekend, the store hosts storytelling events for children. Owner Lily Wong stocks many picture books in the space.
She believes these books carry plenty of life lessons for kids. “I used to work in a Hong Kong church as a social worker,” she says. “The church used picture books to help young people deal with emotions and learn to respect others. It was magical. Cuchi-Cuchi also does this. It is all about respect for wisdom. I want to spread this message.”
Wong, who grew up in Macao, returned to the city in 2009. She later took her career in a new direction in 2017 when she started her “book bike” – essentially, she would ride a bike loaded with books to local parks and encourage people to read.
“It was a great feeling to share the wisdom of reading with others,” she says. But it wasn’t long before she wanted her own bookstore with a focus on families, children and young people. So in 2018 she opened Cuchi-Cuchi.
Wong’s role at the store, aside from being the owner, is the head storyteller, promoter and store operator all rolled into one.
“I want to show parents that the story within the pages of each picture book continues beyond our storytelling sessions,” she says. “You can read a story numerous times and learn different things. If you pick up a book and read it with your kids, they will develop good reading habits. With encouragement, they can also learn how to concentrate despite the temptation of electronic devices.”
Wong says the pandemic hit her store hard last year. She says it was a “double whammy” since she had to close the shop and cancel storytelling events.
“It was hard when we had to close,” says Wong, “but now we’re doing great again. Bookstores in Macao and across the world have been on the decline for many years now, so if you want a solid business, you have to go the extra mile to create a community.”
Júbilo 31 Books:
Promoting creativity and culture
A few minutes away from St Lazarus’ Church sits Júbilo 31 Books, where design and art fans head for a browse or deep-thinking session, while children come for its extensive range of picture books.
The name means ‘joy’ in English and it is indeed a joyful space. Júbilo 31 Books sells mainly Chinese-language books, although there are a good few English options too. The store even has a bijou indoor children’s playground for the little ones.
One of the bookstore’s three owners, freelance graphic designer Chiwai Cheang – better known as ‘CK’ – is a big fan of picture books, and he says the store stocks plenty for children and adults alike.
“Everyone should read picture books,” he says. “It is frustrating that picture books are still widely regarded as comics or something for entertainment. They can be hugely educational. Visual images play an important role in our lives. They are everywhere and they convey messages and meanings. In our bookstore, we try to attract readers by connecting picture book visuals with life.”
The bookstore also sets itself apart by hosting creative, interactive events and promoting local culture. In 2017, Cheang drew a map of local graveyards and sold it to both locals and tourists. “Macao is a treasure,” says Cheang. “I hope to create a connection between our local culture and local people through events and initiatives like the map. Our city is worth this sort of local love and attention.”
And in 2019, the team invited local illustrators and professionals to lead a workshop series called “Read A(nd) Painting Collections | City: Past, Present and Future”.
“In these workshops, we returned to the basic concepts of drawing, reading and illustration, and we presented accessible concepts of a city,” says Cheang, adding that the workshop boosted sales. “The participants gained interest in these concepts and, as a result, started to read more of our books, especially the picture books.”
Slow Tune Book Shop:
Calligraphy, stationery and local brands
Down the road from Júbilo 31, Slow Tune Book Shop stocks plenty of Chinese books for all ages, Macao souvenirs, calligraphy equipment, and sought-after stationery from the likes of Lan Lan Cat from Taiwan.
Both passionate book, crafts and calligraphy lovers, graphic designer Jeff Lo and his wife, Emmy Lo, founded the shop in 2016.
It is difficult enough running an indie bookstore without a pandemic, says Jeff Lo. “It is hard,” he says. “We have passionate readers and customers but we are not talking about a tremendous amount of people. Our location is not perfect. We once had no visitors for an entire day. It was frustrating.”
The store manages to stay afloat thanks to its artistic offerings, workshops and beautiful stationery. “We do sell books but we know we have to offer more to survive,” he says.
For instance, the store offers calligraphy workshops that are popular among residents in their 20s and 30s. “They don’t just teach participants calligraphic skills but also give them a chance to relax in our space,” says Lo. “In 2019, Taiwanese calligrapher Ya Yeh led an excellent calligraphy workshop and it was full in no time!”
A focus on local and Asian brands has also helped boost sales.
“We sell brands from places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia,” says Lo. “But now we see a growing number of local brands emerging and some of these are really creative, such as book wraps, bags and handkerchiefs from Forest and cat-themed bags from Osanna Design.”
In the future, Lo hopes to create his own products to sell in the shop. However, due to the pandemic, the plan is on hold. “Business has obviously been tough,” he says, “but we are starting to see a healthy upturn and now we’re probably going to be running events again. We hope everything improves in 2021.”
Universal Gallery & Bookstore:
Paintings and pages
Universal Gallery & Bookstore is all about both books and art. Located in the Taipa Houses-Museum No 3 along the tranquil Avenida da Praia, the two-storey shop doubles as a gallery.
In the book department, visitors will discover a wide range of tomes on humanities subjects, social sciences, current affairs and art and design in both Chinese and English. When it comes to art, the exhibition space not only displays decorative paintings and locally designed souvenirs but also serves as a beautiful setting for workshops.
Owner Ruby Chen opened in the shop in 2019 – and it was a great first year. The gallery featured nine exhibitions from local artists and organisations, including Yuen-yi Lo, an artist, writer and lecturer at the University of Macau. The gallery was also a reliable revenue stream, since exhibitors rent the space, up until the pandemic, adds Chen.
“Our public libraries provide great services, so many people in Macao tend to borrow books instead of buying them,” says Chen. “However, we do see a growing interest in the sale of books published by the government, especially those by the Cultural Institute. They explore local history and culture so we always have some of them in stock here.”
While it’s challenging to run a bookstore in 2021, Chen doesn’t predict an end to the industry anytime soon. “We hope to keep on offering what we find interesting and we hope that many locals will find us, follow us and come into our store regularly,” she says. “There are still just too many people out there who prefer the real thing to the virtual one.”