New York, they say, is ‘the city that never sleeps’, and modern life seems to be ever more 24/7. I have on occasion made use of the one 24-hour shopping opportunity that is now a feature of life in the UK. This has usually involved having a guest to stay and realising, too late, the paucity of my breakfast supplies; my guest wends their way up the stairs (the guest bedroom is on the 2nd floor) and, after a discreet pause, I’m out the front door to the local 24-hour Tesco. I find it a depressing (if face-saving) experience: a netherworld of cluttered aisles, bored shelf-stackers and insomniac shoppers (sometimes with insomniac baby in tow).
Thus it was recently that another 24-hour shopping experience gave me pause for thought. I had left my Taipei hotel by taxi at 11.30pm, and a short while later entered a remarkable establishment: the all-night bookshop. I sense that the British bookshop has been under threat in recent decades, much of their business drained by the Amazon basin and the competition from the Waterstones chain. The Eslite Bookstore, founded in 1989, has 48 branches throughout Taiwan and recently opened two branches in Hong Kong. My first encounter, a few days earlier, had been a branch in Tainan which was open until 10pm and full of people every evening. The Dunhua branch in Taipei is something else.
Firstly, there is the stock of books – Chinese and English. So many enticing titles with particularly fine sections in Philosophy, Architecture and Design, Art and Photography, and Music. It is a terribly sad state of affairs that even in the largest Waterstones store in the UK books about the great composers are essentially no longer stocked. Clearly there is a market for them in Taipei – I saw many such titles on Bach, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns and Wagner, to name but a small selection.
More remarkable is the clientele: dozens of people, many young adults, eagerly filling the shop after midnight. Some were browsing books, others were sat at communal tables working, a few were sat on steps having a chat.
I am lost in admiration for this intelligent culture of the Far East: the work ethic, the respect for culture, the thirst for learning. It leads to some very awkward questions for those of us from the West.
I made my purchases and headed back to my hotel just before 1.00am. As I left, a few fellows (very un-tramplike chaps) were having a nap in the foyer. Outside a line of 8 taxis were queuing for custom from bibliophile shoppers. The drivers were going to have to wait a while yet: inside the shop there were books to be read, knowledge to be learned, and ideas to be pursued. The night was yet young…