Sanctuary for Antiquarian Books

Hu Tong, the founder of Booyee Bookshop, poses for a photo in the bookstore’s warehouse. A native of Shandong Province, Hu has been obsessed with reading and collecting books since his childhood. With the continuous expansion of his collection and his deepening understanding of bookstore and second-hand book business, Hu has gradually developed this second-hand bookshop into his career.

Tucked away in Nanyang Lane in Beijing’s Dongcheng District, Booyee Bookshop offers readers a chance for close contact with rare antiquarian books. Reading an ancient book opposite floor-to-ceiling windows in the bookstore fashioned from a former theater while sipping a cup of coffee is quite an experience. Hu Tong, the founder of Booyee, has been devoted to book collection and sales for more than 20 years.

New Life for Old Books

One can find a wide range of antiquarian books from various historical periods in Booyee Bookshop including rare painted guidebooks and priceless collections of Dunhuang murals as well as old cookbooks, poetry collections, and magazines collected by ordinary families. On the wall behind the piles of rare antiquarian books, second-hand books, and photocopied editions on Hu Tong’s office desk is an inscription of the bookstore’s name penned by famous Chinese cultural heritage expert Wang Shixiang (1914-2009).

Booyee Bookshop is hidden in an alley of Dongcheng District, Beijing. Opened on July 18, 2020, it specializes in antiquarian books as well as replica editions and derivatives.

From 2003 to 2020, Booyee moved several times from a backstreet courtyard to an office building and then to a residential quarter before settling in its current location. Reasons for moving included changes in demand-supply situation for second-hand books, the bookshop’s expanding stock, and the gradual decline and marginalization of physical bookstores.

“Without support from our readers, Booyee would have been closed down years ago,” Hu lamented. “The bookstore is more than just my personal dream and business. It represents many book lovers and collectors’ dreams about what an old-style bookshop should be like. If Booyee makes their lives a bit better, that’s enough.”

Hu Tong examines an album of Dunhuang murals that he bought from abroad at a high price.

Hu has also moved Booyee online. So far, the bookstore has done more than 90 livestreamed sales sessions in the past 70 straight days. Alongside sales of second-hand and antiquarian books, Booyee organized two livestreams for new releases that achieved sales volumes exceeding 400,000 yuan (about US$61,500).

Introducing Ancient Books to Young Readers

In April 2020, Hu converted a 34-square-meter corridor in Nanyang Lane into a bookstore specializing in ancient books dating back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties as well as replica editions and derivatives. After the new bookshop opened on July 18 of that year, many younger people quickly embraced the opportunity to get close to antiquarian books.

Wielding his profound knowledge of ancient books and enthusiasm for spreading the culture, Hu organized a series of activities for readers to admire and read rare ancient books in the bookstore. He hopes that such visual and sensory experiences increase interest in ancient books and the stories behind them.

A copy of the Chinese-English bilingual book Noted Porcelains of Successive Dynasties with Comments and Illustrations by Hsiang Yuan-Pien, collected by Hu Tong, features thin Xuan paper, a kind of rice paper usually used for Chinese calligraphy and painting.
The inside pages of Noted Porcelains of Successive Dynasties with Comments and Illustrations by Hsiang Yuan-Pien boast carefully printed texts and realistic illustrations.

Such activities help enhance young readers’ intimacy with traditional culture. Hu also takes ancient books to communities and schools. Recently, he was invited to lecture at Peking University, at which more than 60 teachers and students attended to enjoy the antiquarian books he brought. “Ancient books are carriers of traditional culture,” he said. “Whether they’re in the script of the Han people or other ethnic groups, the books need to be passed down. China invented traditional printing. Exploring the secrets behind these ancient books is crucial to the inheritance of traditional Chinese culture.”

Seeding the Future

Almost daily now, Hu and his colleagues dig through their piles of books to package and ship those sold via live-
streaming. Outbound shipments are neatly arranged on a long table. Hu thinks of every shipped book as a gift sent to a faraway friend, so he wants customers to open the boxes with excitement.

Over the 20 years since he started his career in the business, Hu has witnessed drastic changes in publishing and circulation. The recent popularity of digital reading has made the functions of printed books, including antiquarian books, transform. Twenty years ago, antiquarian books were mainly used by scholars and researchers for studies. Today, they are mostly bought by customers for collection and exhibition purposes. Of course, some have a value-added function.

An anthology of New Year pictures published in 1950 in Hu Tong’s collection.

Hu remains neutral on the future prospects of his bookshop. “Booyee’s future is still sated with uncertainty,” he sighed. “Right now, all I can do is take solid steps forward, and wait and see. I hope the brand will last. Booyee will celebrate its 20th birthday this year, and I hope it lives a couple more decades. Why do practitioners like me insist on preserving the antiquarian book business? I think all we’re doing is planting seeds for future enthusiasts.”  

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