Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing provides 'blind dates' with books for readers looking for something unexpected. Yang Yang reports.
Life is like a box of chocolates, so they say, or perhaps a box of books sent from Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing, Jiangsu province.
"Just leave us a message, whatever you want to say, and we will pick the right books for you," says the "blind pick" web page of the bookstore on Taobao, China's largest online shopping platform.
The store promises that with 88 yuan (S$18), a buyer can get at least two books picked by its staff members according to the buyer's message, and a postcard made by the bookstore with or without handwritten words by staff members.
It is a sort of puzzle for the staff who select the books at the store and a form of divination for the customers, who cannot be sure what books they will receive. Many buyers expect a pleasant surprise, or people who can really understand them. Some say they love this kind of interaction beyond the activity itself. Others say they just want the postcards with handwritten blessings from the bookstore.
It's kind of similar to a blind date. You know nothing about the other person before you meet face-to-face, except you might have similar tastes.
"'Blind pick' started in 2014, before I was transferred to the online business department, and was partly inspired by the book 84, Charing Cross Road," says 25-year-old Lyu Kai, who has been in charge of the bookstore's online business since 2016.
84, Charing Cross Road is a small collection of 29 letters exchanged between freelance writer Helene Hanff who lived in New York and used-book dealer Frank Doel who had a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road, London. Over 20 years, Hanff wrote to Doel, telling him what she wanted to read about and Doel would pick books and send them to New York. They never met, but they were great friends.
In the first two years, the service by the Chinese bookstore received little attention. Last year, when Lyu joined the online business team, there were three or four orders a day, and staff members had enough time to analyse the messages from buyers－some were so tricky that four or five staff members would get involved.
Lyu recalls a colleague's words about selling books: Our job is to pick a right book for a person, and pick the right person for a book.
"This is what I consider my job, so I decided to pour more energy into the 'blind pick' service, promoting it on our micro blog and putting it on the front page of our online store," he says.
In March, order numbers suddenly jumped from eight a day to about 80 a day, because "some buyers were extremely satisfied with the books we picked so they posted a message about it on their micro blogs and many of their followers found out about the service," he says. After the initial rush ebbed, the number of orders fell to about 20 to 30 a day.
But the service regained popularity in September, receiving about 70 to 100 orders a day, and on Oct 10, the number of orders reached a record 4,000.
This was because the "blind pick" service was selected by Taobao as a quality product recommended to buyers who like to search for books.
"There were so many orders that we had to close the online service for a while because we needed time to deal with the backlog of orders, otherwise the messages might have been misinterpreted or we may have sent a buyer's books to another mistakenly," he says, adding that they had to ask for help from other departments.
Now that the order numbers have been limited to 100 a day, they are snapped up within a minute.
Some buyers, with high expectations the books will be special, have expressed their disappointment, complaining online that the bookstore just uses this service to sell unsalable books, that the staff members had not understood the message they sent, or that the books sent in return were mediocre.
But Lyu says, "If a customer is not satisfied, we will try to talk to them and explain the reasons for our choices."
Some customers also complained online that the express service was too slow, with some of them waiting for up to 10 days for their deliveries.
One reason for this was the huge number of orders the bookstore received. Another reason was that some messages were so difficult to decode that Lyu and his team had to ask for help in trying to decipher them.
Some messages were about a customer's pop idol, or simply a line from a poem, the lyrics of a song, or sometimes nothing at all.
Once a customer asked staff members to draw a little tiger, they did and posted it on Sina Weibo, a major micro blog platform.
When there was no message, staff members simply recommended their favourite books.
"Sometimes, we find ourselves picking two or three books whose total price surpasses the limit of 88 yuan, but if it's a good match we will not change our choice to meet the price requirement. We lose money in these cases, but otherwise, our choices can be very limited. So we sometimes adjust the price to increase the range from which to choose," Lyu says.
However, the blind-picking has increased book sales overall, especially those often overlooked by readers.
A reader with the user name, "Just-starting-working-yet-already-hating-it A Yue", posted on her micro blog that she received Last Evenings on Earth by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano Avalos.
"I just opened the box to see what I got before walking out but was immediately attracted by Last Evenings on Earth so that I took it with me. I read the book on the bus and decided to buy the author's other works such as 2666 and The Wild Detectives. … Without 'blind pick', I would have never bought a book by a Chilean writer."
Lyu and his colleagues are happy to see such good results, and they also realise that the bookstore has been gradually turning into "Namiya General Store" in Japanese writer Keigo Higashino's The Miracles of the Namiya General Store, which offers solutions and comfort to lost souls.
Some buyers getting in touch are experiencing a very difficult time in their lives, such as losing a family member, ending a long-term relationship, facing complicated family problems, or finding out their sexual orientation is unacceptable to parents or classmates.
"They will say in the messages that they don't know what to do. In summer, a lot of college graduates told us they felt lost, worried or depressed because they couldn't find a job," Lyu says.
"We are like a tree hole, to which you can say anything you want. We're glad that with books we can offer some help. Unlike films, books give readers more time to think and to heal themselves," he says.
"We all joke that if we didn't sell books we should become psychoanalysts in the future."