I had a great conversation with Robert Stark and his co-host Pilleater on Robert’s podcast the other day. We talked about my book Paradise Theater and the background that led to my writing it, as well as different aspects of life in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and comparisons of East and West in culture and philosophy.
Stark Truth Radio is one of the most interesting and eclectic mixes of opinion and information from the fringes of politics, culture, and art, and it was a privilege to be on the show.
Back in my hometown, one of my favorite ways to spend a day was to visit all the used bookstores in the downtown area. There were about five of them, and I could ride my bike from one to the other, looking for hidden gems of wisdom amidst the stacks of torn paperbacks and old hardcovers that had long been separated from their dust jackets. Aside from being cheaper, old books have an air of authenticity about them – quite literally an air, since you can smell it. Someone told me that it’s actually the smell of mold, but I much prefer to think of it as the lingering presence of the past. I also love the smell of dank basements, so maybe I’m just weird like that.
In new bookstores, you pretty much know what you’re going to find: what’s new and what’s enduringly popular. I used to work at a corporate chain bookstore many years ago, and I know how they place their orders. Anything cool and obscure in the store was due to the efforts of us, the employees, hacking into the special order database and getting it. How some of those very same titles that we ordered later went missing from the inventory is a mystery of the ages.
In used bookstores, you never know what you’re going to find – except for a few things that you DO know you will find, such as copies of Eckhart Tolle, The Celestine Prophecy and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, inscribed by some hippie girl to her now ex-boyfriend, who promptly traded them in unread as soon as they broke up. “To my wonderful Adam, May your Soul soar and your Heart live in love, Love, LOVE!!! Peace and Light, Moira.” Yuck.
Nonetheless, used bookstores are magical. When you find something really cool in a used bookstore, it feels like God or the universe or whatever put it there just for you. After all, what are the chances that someone else in the area had this book, then traded it in at just the right time so that you could find it now, exactly when you need a copy of Clausewitz’ On War?
If I had this feeling of being spoken to by the gods at used bookstores in the States, I have it tenfold in Hong Kong, where there’s no guarantee that a bookstore has books in English, let alone a particular book that’s of interest to me. Also, the used bookstores in my hometown are almost all gone. Four of the five that I used to visit during my mini bike tours of downtown have long since closed, victims of Amazon.com.
But there is no Amazon.com.hk, and to my pleasant surprise while exploring the city, I found that there are five used bookstores in Hong Kong, mostly within walking distance of each other and perfect for whiling away an afternoon in the imaginary world of words. Five used bookstores, just like the old days back home. As Gatsby says, “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can, old sport.”
The Bookstores (for those of you just here for the info)
We’ll start in Central. Get off the metro at Exit B and head west on Des Voeux Road for three blocks until you come to Queen Victoria Street. Make a left and head north up the street. On this block, you’ll see an English sign amidst all the Chinese signs that says:
That ain’t it, although JP Books is a nice NEW bookstore which does have a small selection of English books and which also sells really good coffee from some Fair Trade co-op type thing. No, what you want is a few more stores further, which looks like this:
Go up the stairs and you’ll find Collectables on the 2nd or 3rd floor (sorry, I can’t remember which – it’s from breathing in too much mold.)
(UPDATE January 2017: Collectables has moved. The new address is 1/F, City Hall Low Block, 5 Edinburgh Place, Central.)
Collectables is awesome, and might just be my favorite of all the stores in this post, because in addition to a great selection of used books, they also have used dvds, cds, and … (drum roll) … VINYL!!! This includes vintage goodies from the glory days of Canto-Pop as well as Western music. As for the books, they’re kinda-sorta organized by topic, though with a good number of misplaced items scattered throughout (which is as it should be.) They have a good selection of history books, as well as a lot of Buddhist books and some really obscure old literary criticism from the mid 20th century. And as with all the other bookstores, they also have a section of books on China, since most of us foreigners here are trying like hell to understand this place and have made our way through several books in that effort.
From Collectables, you can keep heading up towards the Peak and grab the Mid-Levels Escalator on the next block, Queen’s Road Central. Our next destination is FlowBooks, which used to be located a few blocks up on Hollywood Road in the Wing On Building. But when I went there last time, I found they had moved. However, they were kind enough to leave the new address.
The new location is only a block down from the old, so what you want to do is get off the escalator at Gage Street and go the HSBC building. Inside you will find:
Flow is much more disorganized than Collectables, perhaps reflecting their move to a new location, or perhaps just the steady flow of books through the place. Like Collectables, they have a good selection of Buddhist books (though not as good) but also a large selection of New Age stuff. Perhaps these should not be shelved together, as I once heard a Buddhist lama say that “New Age” should pronounced “newage” as in “rhymes with sewage.”
The real strength of the place, though, is their selection of fiction, mostly newer titles. I regret not buying the newest James Ellroy title last time I was there. But more than that, I really regret not buying the pristine hardcover copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel which I saw at their old location. By all appearances it was a first edition from the 30s, except that it was so new it couldn’t possibly have been. Special reprint edition? Chinese pirate copy? Magic, I tell you.
Flow also has sections of sports and exercise books, cookbooks, foreign languages and large coffee table books. Their name seems to reflect their dedication to recycling and conscious living, which in spite of my little pokes and jabs and disagreements, I do respect. Especially since, in this case, I directly benefit from it.
After leaving Flow, you have a couple different options for what’s next, as unfortunately there is not one best trajectory to hit all the stores. Since I’m giving you the addresses of all these places, you’re welcome to find which buses go from which to which if you want. I’m limiting my info to the MTR. Head back down to Des Voeux Road or walk around Soho as you please – there are lots of great places to grab lunch – but one way or another get yourself back to the MTR. The next two bookstores are both near the new Sai Ying Pun station.
Near Exit C, just one block south on Park Road, is Books & Co., which wins the prize for cleanest, nicest, and all around loveliest lil’ bookstore you ever seen. They also serve food, so if you don’t want to be bookless for even a moment on your trip, you can grab lunch there. I first read about Books & Co. at a now-defunct blog called Check Out Hong Kong, which had tons of info on obscure stores, restaurants and other locales in Hong Kong.
Near Exit A2 of Sai Ying Pun is the new location of the very first used bookstore that I found in Hong Kong. Booksmart used to be located a few blocks down on Des Voeux Road West, closer to the Sheung Wan station, but they recently moved to a new spot. Unfortunately, the weekend that I went there to grab pics, they were closed, so I can’t give you any info on their new store, but I can tell you that the previous location was exceptionally well-organized and the woman behind the counter was always very friendly and helpful. The selection at Booksmart is strong on fiction, with books divided by genre, which is especially nice. If you’re a sci-fi or mystery lover, this is the place for you. They also have (or at least had) sections for: Biography, Health, History, Philosophy, Business, Self-Help, and Languages, as well as a separate section for Kids books. I hope to visit their new location soon, and I’ll update this post if necessary.
Last but not least, we depart from Hong Kong Island and make our way to Kowloon; more specifically, to the chaotically crowded streets of Mong Kok. I was first introduced to this area as the place to buy shoes, which it is, but unbeknownst to most, there is a building just outside of Exit E2 which is home to not one but TWO awesome bookstores. Mathematically-gifted readers are now saying, “Hey – that makes SIX bookstores!” But one of these two is a new bookstore, albeit with a small used section.
From Exit E2, wade through the maddening crowd to Sai Yeung Choi South Street. Just across the street on the left you’ll see this place:
On the staircase next to it, go up to the 6th floor and you will find Plum Cultivator, a wonderful little used bookstore with about a 50/50 selection of Chinese and English books.
The English books are mostly in that back corner. It’s a rather small selection of mostly non-fiction history and business books, and also some fiction, but I’ve found some real gems in there, most notably some 1970s Australian mass market paperbacks of Philip K. Dick. My last visit yielded a copy of the late Martin Booth’s book on the triads. In the regrettables category, I really wish I would have bought that coffee table book of Frank Frazetta artwork when I saw it there. Sigh.
After perusing the selection at Plum Cultivator, make your way up to the 7th floor for the final destination of our day’s journey. This is Hong Kong Reader, a new bookstore-cafe which specializes in philosophy books.
The first time I went there, the small seating area on the stage was packed with people listening to a man giving a lecture in Cantonese. I asked an employee what was going on, and he replied that it was a lecture on Friedrich Nietzsche. After silently lamenting my total inability to speak or understand Cantonese, I left.
The English sections at Hong Kong Reader are, if memory serves, Philosophy, Literature and Sociology. The books are new and hence a little pricey, but the fact is, if you’re one of the few people looking for a copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus or Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, you’re not going to find it anywhere else. They do, however, have a small used section in which I’ve found some good books. They also have a nice little seating area where you can get a cup of coffee and lose yourself in the great thoughts of East and West.
Coming back to Shenzhen after a day in Hong Kong always makes me a bit sad. The differences between the two neighboring cities are vast, and could easily be the subject of another post. Perhaps they will be. In the meantime, if any readers know of any other used bookstores to add to the list, please leave a comment with the information.