Founded in February 2017, Bleak House Books is the brainchild of husband and wife pair Albert Wan and Jenny Smith. Located in San Po Kong, Kowloon in Hong Kong, the bookshop offers visitors a carefully curated selection of new and used English language books (as well as vintage comics and sheet music!), and acts as a refuge for local and foreign booklovers alike. Books are available for purchase on the shop’s website, which also features striking art from Bleak House Books’ talented “Artist in Residence,” Vicky Nunn.
In this feature, we talk with co-owner Albert Wan about building community, promoting local authors, and what it really means to get the “Bleak House Books Treatment.”
Tell us a little about the atmosphere of Bleak House Books. What’s it like when people walk in?
The bookshop is on the 27th floor of an office building. The building is in turn located in a semi-industrial area with lots of mechanic shops/garages, warehouses, and 70s, 80s era industrial buildings. (If you want to get a better feel for the area which is called San Po Kong, I have a photo essay on our blog that features photos I took around San Po Kong.) Like most of Hong Kong, it's quite picturesque.
So the first thing most folks say when they visit the bookshop is "wow, we can't believe there's a bookstore on the 27th floor of an office building!" or something to that effect.
When you walk inside the bookshop, the first thing that hits you is the wood smell from the bookshelves. We had them made by a local furniture maker/carpentry workshop which is probably one of the last of its kind left in Hong Kong, with most furniture now being made in the Mainland or wherever else one might find cheap(er) labor.
For Hong Kong standards the space is spacious — around 950 SF or so. And we try hard not to clutter it up with too much furniture or even books. Clutter is something that's common to most retail establishments in Hong Kong with space being at a premium, and used bookstores are no exception. Some are cluttered to the point where visitors might fear for their own safety! So given the size of our space and the way we organize it a first time visitor might feel a sense of comfort and maybe even peacefulness when he or she first walks into the shop.
The lighting is also something we thought long and hard about when we were renovating the space and we think it turned out well. We really didn't want to use the fluorescent lights that came with the unit but we also didn't want to spend lots of money on a lighting scheme for a space we were renting and would probably not stay in forever. Plus we are always watching our bottom line, being in a business that's not known for its longevity, especially in cities with high rents and sparse English readership, of which Hong Kong is an example. So we decided to use some pretty standard Ikea wall lamps and hacked them so that we could control them via wall switches rather than with the flip switches that originally came with the lamps. The net effect is that the lighting is dim enough so it doesn't feel like you're in an office/work setting but bright enough so that it illuminates the books on the shelves and the surrounding space as well.
Lastly there's the view from our bookshop windows. The good thing about having a bookshop on the 27th floor of an office building in a semi-industrial area is that you get a pretty cool and expansive view of the city. On good days you can even see the water to the south of us, which is the famous harbor that separates Kowloon — where we are — from Hong Kong Island — where the heart of Hong Kong's business and financial communities resides.
The combination of all this makes the space inviting, comfortable and a refuge of sorts from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong — which is just how we like it!
How did the bookstore get started? What sets it apart from other bookstores in Hong Kong?
The bookstore came about mostly by circumstance rather than, say, through some grand design. My wife is a college professor and she took a job in Hong Kong. We were living in Atlanta at that time, and I had my own solo law practice. But with the move coming up I decided it would be a good time for a change. At the time a bookshop seemed like a good idea because it would allow me to do something that involved the community and would also take me out of my comfort zone of doing something I've never done before. All of that is still true I guess but what I didn't realize at the time was how much work would be involved in running a bookshop! It's definitely not the idyllic kind of job that most folks think it is.
Our bookstore is different from others in Hong Kong because of its people, selection, and commitment to the community.
I am lucky to have Jenny, my wife, as my partner in crime. The bookshop is as much her baby, as it is my own. Even though I do the day-to-day stuff I never make big decisions about acquisitions or hiring without first consulting with Jenny. And Jenny and I will always go on our book buying trips together because she knows about writers and books that I know nothing about, and vice versa. In short, two brains are better than one, and I think the selection we have at Bleak House Books is proof of that.
We've also been lucky to have Rachel as part of the Bleak House Books family since we first opened our doors to the public this past January. Rachel manages the shop and does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work — like cataloging and scanning the thousands of books we have in our inventory! — that has made Bleak House Books what it is today. She's also way more put together than I am, and is often mistaken as the owner of Bleak House Books which is just as well!
So where does the community factor into all this you might be asking yourself? First there's our space, which folks are always free to visit and hang out in, without any pressure to buy anything. Of course it's always nice to sell a book or two but we are just as happy for folks to drop in, browse to their heart's content, and then disappear into the ether that is Hong Kong's bustling metropolis. And then there are the organized events, meetings, etc. which we host at the shop from time to time. For example we have a book club that will have one of its meetings at our shop next month. The name of the book club is Run of Page. As the name suggests the members are all runners in varying capacities and they will all go for a brisk run before settling down into the comfort of our shop for their upcoming meeting. You might say that's their book club routine.
One of the things I admire most about Bleak House Books is your commitment to promoting local authors and culture. Can you tell us about some of the ways you’re doing that?
First we sell their books for them. More often than not we receive requests from local authors to have us stock their books at our shop and we usually say yes, even if the book is not one we think will be a popular seller, for whatever reason. Once we agree to accept the book, we will ask the author to come to our shop so we can take some photos of him or her, which we will then feature on our Facebook page, along with a write-up about the writer's background and book. And we do it in a way that's entertaining and engaging. It's something we call the 'Bleak House Books treatment'; examples here, here, and here.
Organized events help too. This past March we were part of a walking tour of San Po Kong that was organized by a neighbor of ours, Spicy Fish Cultural Productions. For the event we invited a local writer and journalist Christopher DeWolf to talk about his book, Borrowed Spaces, which was recently published by Penguin for its China series. His book addressed what is a hot button issue here in Hong Kong relating to the constantly changing urban landscape and as a result its culture, more often than not, in ways detrimental to the community. We also had a poetry reading organized by a wonderful online literary journal called Cha, based here in Hong Kong, that featured local poets and writers like Nashua Gallagher and David McKirdy. It was a big success, and we have more Cha-related events already scheduled for the coming months.
What are your goals for the bookstore in the next several years?
You mean besides trying to make rent and break even? And not burn myself out? If I can accomplish all of that I'd say we're in good shape. But it would make me happy if we can further expand our local author lineup and also get to the point where we can schedule events at the shop on a regular basis. Oh, and coffee. We'd like to get a coffee machine at some point to entice folks who visit to stay a while longer. It's a sad substitute though for my original choice of beverage to serve at the bookshop: beer! But I don't see that happening any time, being on the 27th floor of an office building and all.
Which books in the store are you most excited about right now? What's selling well?
Let's see. We have a great collection of pre-1960s paperbacks — what we call here at the shop 'vintage paperbacks'. They run the gamut from hard-boiled murder mysteries to Westerns to memoirs. And almost all of them feature wonderful, hand-drawn covers. Even so can't say they sell really well. But we like posting their covers on our Facebook page and laughing at some of the sillier titles; there's one we have called Wail of the Lonely Wench, and another called Repent in Haste!
Books by local authors sell pretty well. We have one by David Bellis that features old photographs of Hong Kong. David is a collector of old photos and also a self-taught historian. In his book, Old Hong Kong Photos and the Tales They Tell, Vol. 1, David meticulously examines the photos in his book for clues to Hong Kong's past. Not having the full arsenal of tools and research (not to mention time) that are often available to a historian affiliated with a large institution David often engages the reader in a conversation about aspects of photo he thinks are historically significant but whose provenance he might not be able to determine given his limited tools, asking the reader for his or her two-cents so to speak.
More recently we had someone come to our shop and buy up a big chunk of our collection of vintage Penguin Classics. We had these little guys ever since we started the bookshop so we were emotionally attached to them and were sad to see them go. But we are also happy to know they are now in a good, second home.