The first stop on PW’s itinerary is the tranquil Tongji Bookstore, located adjacent to the junction of two busy roads in Shanghai’s Yangpu district. It fits around 10,000 titles, on topics ranging from arts and design to science and the humanities, into 325 sq. m., and has an outdoor seating area and a garden intended for little exhibitions and events. Memories of crammed and dusty academic bookstores of the past are chased away by the bright and open space with creative book displays, no doubt a nod to its parent university’s strengths in architecture and design.

“We are creating an ‘urban living room’ that connects academia to the public and offers an inclusive environment to encourage public reading,” says Hua Chunrong, general manager of Tongji University Press, adding that the bookstore was launched to commemorate its parent university’s 111th anniversary on May 18, 2018. “Despite the popularity of e-retailers and social media platforms in selling and buying books in China, there remains an urgent need to have bricks-and-mortar stores, especially as a cultural meeting point for interacting and exchanging ideas. Furthermore, now that we are doing more trade-based titles, proximity to the reading public is essential.”

Books aside, the Tongji Bookstore is also known for its little café that serves inky-black pineapple ice cream. The insider joke is that consuming the ice cream is equivalent to digesting the ink spilled on book pages, or in other words, becoming a learned person.

Payment for books, coffee, and ice cream is cashless, mostly through Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay, the two most popular digital wallets in China, which account for 93% of the country’s mobile payment industry. (Various news organizations predict that, by 2020, Chinese consumers will transact nearly $45 trillion through mobile payments, making it the world’s first cashless economy.)

PW’s next stop is Hangzhou, which is about 180 km. away, or around an hour by high-speed train. Here, the 500 sq. m. Boku Tianmu Bookstore, owned by Zhejiang Publishing & Media Company, offers nearly 40,000 titles from various publishing houses and a brand-new look and feel.

Last October, the seven-year-old store was relaunched with a cashless and mostly unstaffed system from Tmall, Alibaba’s third-party business-to-consumer platform for retailers. A shopper enters the store by accessing the Tmall app or Alipay account on his or her mobile phone. The shopper immediately receives a personalized page on Smart Shelf with book recommendations based on previous shopping patterns. More book reviews, related information, and corresponding shelf locations appear on the interactive LCD screens located throughout the store. Each recommended book has a QR code to support online and offline browsing and purchase. Tmall’s Smart Payment system then enables the shopper to pay via facial recognition and provides an updated transaction history through the mobile phone. The shopper’s browsing activities and transaction history are further analyzed for more accurate recommendations of both books and author-related events.

“We use WeChat and various social media platforms to disseminate information on in-store promotions and events,” says Zhu Yongliang, general manager of Zhejiang Publishing & Media Company, which has its own WeChat account to publish information on the store’s weekend events, such as handicraft lessons, flower arranging classes, parent-child games, and book readings. Some 93 events have been held since its October relaunch.

Such activities, adds Zhu, “represent our multipronged outreach efforts to foster better understanding of a bookstore’s different roles in a community, and to increase interactions between the bookstore and readers and among the creative, publishing, and reading communities.”

In recent months, the local governments of some major Chinese cities are working to support and revive bricks-and-mortar bookstores, which have struggled in the face of intense competition from online retailers and social media platforms. Beijing now has a 50-million CNY fund to subsidize 150 specialty and community bookstores, while Shanghai plans to ensure that each of the city’s major universities (of which there are more than 40) has its own campus bookstore.