city of books, Taipei

At Gu Ling Street

Taipei has always struck me as a reading kind of city. Maybe it's because it is hard to ignore the Eslite bookstores that seem to be in every part of the city. Which city can boast of a 24hour bookstore in one of its most prime shopping districts? Or that its bookstore chain also operates a hotel in the estate of a fancy restored tobacco factory?

But Taipei is more than Eslite.

It has a lively publishing sector that translates many of the latest foreign titles within a year or so. And in some ways, although it is not immune from the general demise of reading and books, its domestic market is secure because the Taiwanese use the traditional script (fan ti) versus China's simplified script.  And like many enterprises in Taiwan, I think its books and publishing reflects its spirit of independence.

And so with bookstores. These are a few independent bookstores that we've discovered over the years through the recommendations of friends, websites and magazines.

Bleu & Books

青鳥(Bleu & Books) is in the HuaShan creative and cultural district, a cluster of warehouses restored to house eateries, exhibition spaces, Legacy Taipei (a music livehouse), arthouse cinema Spot, and various design and lifestyle shops. You get the idea. The bookstore is worth a visit if you are at HuaShan. It has an interesting selection of fiction and books on architecture, politics, Taiwan and just ideas. If you order a drink from the cafe, they don't seem to bother if you sit at a table for hours. 

Look out for this sign for Pon Ding!

朋丁(Pon Ding) - A book store with a small but good and current selection that includes zines, photography, design and art books. Level 2 is a gallery. They serve coffee on the ground floor, and the staff are friendly. It is appropriately located in the ZhongShan MRT area, which has all these trendy cafes.

下北沢世代 Shimokitazawa Books) - Another art and design book store, but with a bit more focus on independent magazine, illustration and art/literary publications from Taiwan. The bookstore is a tiny office unit on Level 2 of an old nondescript commercial building. It's quite a trek from the MRT station, with pet stores and old electrical stores lining the way. I think Shimokitzawa is one of the earliest independent art and design bookstores. I like how it's pared down, unfussy, lived-in and still managed by the owner. 

Entrance to Mr Zeng's kingdom

水準書局(Shui Jun Bookstore) is an institution, and its owner Mr Zeng is a legend. Located in the Shida university area, the bookstore is frequented by students and everyone who's been a student. It's a real book-lover and knowledge-seeker's bookstore. There's no hipsteresque furniture and knick knacks, only books. And the books are shelved from floor to ceiling. You can't see any bit of the wall surface, not even the counter.  If he could, Mr Zeng would have shelves on the ceiling. And the store stocks all the latest titles.

My Chinese isn't great, so I can't for the life of me figure out how the books are arranged. "Hmm. Most of the time, by publisher", J answered without blinking. "Which bookstore arranges books by publisher?! How do you find the books you want?!?" The wannabe librarian in me protested. J continued browsing a book he had picked out from a shelf which seemed to me to have mostly books by Japanese authors. "Why not? You see, more or less they are the same kind of books."

Mr Zeng gives our discounts as easily as does advice and conversation about life, world politics, philosophy. J and I witnessed the former in action. "This book is NTD420" he glanced at the price printed at the back cover, then adds, "let's go with NTD310." On the edge of a shelf, there are postcards from customers thanking him for being a part of their student lives. 

荒花 (Wildflower Bookstore) A really goodlooking store with an adventurous selection of art books and zines, It is not far from Pon Ding, so it's worth a visit if you are wandering around the ZhongShan area.

Whether Eslite, a university haunt or hip design stores, the book trade in Taipei began in 牯靈街 (Gu Ling Street). Gu Ling Street is always special in my mind because of Edward Yang's film! As in the film, Gu Ling Street was previously lined with bookstores, including rental bookstores. There are still a few of these left now, but they are curiosities. The old/second-hand books are magazines are bundled up, as if they are to be sold by weight. 

We spotted a tiny store on Gu Ling Street. It is no wider than a corridor and lined with shelves of old academic publications. I didn't dare pick any of them up because they look too fragile. Most of the spines are so faded you can no longer read their titles. But the owner has lovingly hand-written the title or topic. These treasures are named so that they are more than just a bunch of paper... more than a recording of knowledge, ideas, stories, love and time.


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