“If anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.”
-George Orwell, ‘The Moon Under Water’ (1946)
Back when I was studying in the UK, I would notice how many more second-hand bookstores there were when compared to Hong Kong. Sure, you’d see the familiar signs of Waterstones and Foyles in the city centre (think Commercial Press and the former Page One in HK), but people would often go to charity shops, indie bookstores and Sunday markets for the hidden gems, like out of print works, first editions or even unpublished papers.
Recently, I came across the website of an independent second-hand English bookseller called ‘Bleak House Books’, which immediately caught my attention with its nod to Charles Dickens.
The owner, Albert Wan, is a former civil rights lawyer from the US, and he is dedicated to selling “books that people want to read” and building “the best selection of used books in Hong Kong: literature, non-fiction, essays, cookbooks and children’s”. For now, Albert is running his store online, as well as selling second-hand books at pop-up shops and weekend markets all over Hong Kong.
Intrigued by the idea of anyone wanting to set up an English bookselling business in our largely ‘commerce over culture’ city, I reached out to Albert and asked if I could interview him for my ‘Litera-chat’ series. He graciously accepted, and below are his thoughts on what inspired him to set up an indie English bookshop in the first place, what kinds of books and readers he’d like for ‘Bleak House’, why George Orwell is so swell, how he envisions his business to develop in the near future, and why he empathises with those who struggle with reading books in a language that is not their own.
Check out Bleak House Books’ Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/bleakhousebooks/
If you have old books to sell, get in touch with Albert by messaging him at (+852) 6670 7064.
Bleak House will be hosting their upcoming sales at the HKUST market/garage sale on 3 June, the Sai Kung Market on 4 June, and the Discovery Bay market on 11 June.
Part 1 – Getting to know Albert, the owner
J: You used to be a civil rights lawyer. Why the change from legal practice to bookselling?
A: [My wife and I] were living in the U.S. when I was a lawyer and my wife found a job in Hong Kong that we couldn’t pass up. At that point I was lucky enough to be at a stage in my legal career where I felt I did what I set out to do. So the time was right for a change. That said, I have never regretted practicing law and enjoyed every moment of it, even when things didn’t go my way, which was not unusual given my practice area.
J: What inspired you to set up an independent bookstore specifically for second-hand English books?
A: Selling books seemed like a good way to get involved in the community and do something real, in the sense that I wasn’t sitting in an office shuffling papers. Plus, I secretly hope one or both my kids will one day help me out in the bookshop but that’s a ways away since they are three and five years old right now.
No real reason why I decided to sell second-hand English books. My English is way better than my Chinese, and I’m an avid reader of English books, old and new. I’ll probably end up selling new books too at some point, maybe even some Chinese ones, but I thought the easiest way to get the bookshop started would be to stock it with used English books. There’s also a ton of old stuff that’s worth reading but unavailable anywhere on the web or at other bookstores in Hong Kong.
Anyway, who doesn’t love the feeling of walking into a used bookstore and being hit with the smell of old books?
J: I notice that you first uploaded an image of Orwell’s books as the profile picture for Bleak House Book’s FB page. Are you a fan of Orwell? Who are your top authors?
A: Yes, I admire Orwell very much, for the way he lived his life as much as for the way he wrote. He belongs to the rare breed of writer who never sold his soul to make money or become famous. In fact, he did much the opposite and it led, tragically, to his untimely death at the age of 46.
A list of my favorite writers in no particular order: James Baldwin, Tony Judt, David Halberstam, Doris Lessing, Arthur Koestler, Malamud, Stephen King, Murakami, James Cain, Studs Turkel, Vonnegut, Twain, Gorky. There’s more for sure, and while I haven’t read everything that’s ever been written by the writers I’ve listed, I’ve read enough of their works to know that they are people I respect as writers and human beings.
J: Which is/are the book(s) that you have re-read time and again?
A: I read a lot of Orwell, both his novels and his essays. He has an essay about his ideal pub called ‘Moon Under Water’ which I try and read once a year, with the hope that I might be able to help Orwell realize his dream of the perfect pub by opening one like it. When I get depressed about the political situation I read Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. And when I am feeling disconnected with the world I read some interviews by Studs Terkel. But mostly I don’t feel like I’m at a stage in my life where I can endlessly re-read books when there are so many books I haven’t read yet but should.
Part 2 – Getting to know Bleak House Books, the bookstore
J: Why did you choose ‘Bleak House’ as the name for your bookstore?
A: It reminds me of my roots as a lawyer, and some of the disillusionment that came with the job. Bleak House as you probably know is the title of the novel by Charles Dickens in which he takes the British legal system to task for how dysfunctional and unjust it was back when he wrote the book, although I don’t know what the system is like today and whether it has enough shortcomings to inspire someone to write a modern day version of Bleak House.
J: What are your criteria for a quality second-hand book?
A: My general rule is that it has to be relevant and engaging enough so it doesn’t bore the reader to tears. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule; books dealing with specialized subject matters are a good example. But I want readers to buy my books because they want to read them, not because they want to stick them on their bookshelves like folks do with trophies or potted plants.
J: Which genre of books do you get most from booksellers?
A: The bookstore is still very much in its infancy so I don’t have a good answer for this question, in terms of sample size. I guess I’ve gotten a lot of fiction, but part of that is because I am interested in acquiring fiction for the bookstore at the moment.
J: Is there any type/genre of book that you would not sell?
A: When people hear that I have a bookstore in Hong Kong they want to know if I’m going to sell books about Chinese political figures; the kind that recently got those Hong Kong booksellers kidnapped and interrogated by mainland authorities. One reason why I decided to open a bookstore is because I wanted to get out of the business of politics and challenging authority, which was a lot of what I did as a civil rights lawyer. So, that’s one genre I won’t be touching with a ten foot pole. There might be others but that’s what comes to mind right now.
J: I notice that one of your first shipments was a collection of Penguin classics. What about classics do you think makes them so timeless?
A: What one person considers a “classic”, another person might consider snooze-ville. That said, I think there exist some books that most people will agree are endlessly readable. The Bible is an obvious example, as well as works by W. Somerset Maugham and Twain, among others. These works are very much plot-driven and easy to follow. The prose is reader-friendly and the themes we see addressed in these books are as relevant today as they were when the books were first written.
As for the kind of emotional response one should receive from reading a work one might call a classic I would quote from Doris Lessing, who described her version of a classic as a work which radiated “warmth … compassion … humanity … and love of people”, making it “a statement of faith in man himself.”
J: Do you sell second-hand comics out of personal interest, or because there is a considerable market demand for them?
A: I sell them because I think they are helpful for children who are trying to learn English, and, conversely, for the parents who are trying to teach their children English. Plus, I think comics are neat, regardless of their country of origin. Yes, there are a lot more pictures and fewer words than there are in books, but comics still call upon the reader to use his or her imagination in piecing together the story and relating to the characters themselves.
Part 3 – Getting to know Albert’s (Great) Expectations for the bookstore
J: Going forward, who do you expect most of your customers to be (as in, expats and/or locals)?
A: I am hoping to get a fair mix of both. At the end of the day, I want the bookstore to be a place where members of the community can gather, read, and share ideas. To me, this community would be a diverse one that encompasses folks from various backgrounds and from all walks of life.
J: Do you think you’ll set up a physical bookstore anytime soon, or would you prefer keeping your current operational style of online + pop-up store?
A: Yes, my hope is that I will have a physical store up and running by early next year.
J: What do you make of the current English reading culture in Hong Kong? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about it?
A: I don’t know enough about the English reading culture in Hong Kong to give an informed response to that. I know there are plenty of people in Hong Kong who read and write in English as a matter of course, either for work, for their own purposes, or both. And there are plenty of people who want nothing to do with the English language, in both its written and spoken forms.
At the risk of sounding like an Anglophile – and I really am not that sort of person – I think there are too many English language books out there, very few if any which have been translated into Chinese, that deserve to be read, studied and understood, so that ignoring them completely because of one’s phobia or dislike of the English language does a disservice to the human race.
Of course I can relate to those whose English skills are not up to snuff so that reading a English language novel becomes a chore. My Chinese sucks and I can rarely get through one complete sentence without resorting to my Chinese translation app on my phone. But I work through it with the mindset that one day my Chinese will be good enough so I won’t need to rely on an app. I do all that because I think the Chinese language, and more generally its culture, are fascinating and infinitely meaningful in their own right, so ignoring all of it completely because of a language barrier makes me sad.
My hope is that folks in Hong Kong, especially those who are not completely confident in their English language skills, will feel the same way about searching out and reading English language books.
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As a fellow book lover, I share Albert’s passion for building an English reading community in Hong Kong, and wish him all the best in bringing Bleak House Books to more people. Far beyond a commercial transaction of goods, second-hand bookstores are precious in that they facilitate an exchange of the human reading experience, be it across cultures, generations or tastes. By inheriting someone else’s book, then, we are also living a piece of their lived lives, which in turn bonds us in common humanity.
So, thank you, Bleak House Books, for making the world a less bleak place. 🙂
[Photo credits: Albert Wan/Bleak House Books, Adriana Velasquez, NY Books, By accident or design, Samantha Sophia]