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From Bleak House to Book House

Former lawyer Albert Wan explains why he left his job as a lawyer in the United States to open a used bookshop in Hong Kong.

Bleak House (1853), a novel by Charles Dickens, narrates a long-running court case over a large sum of inheritance. This is said to be one of Dickens' best works and that it even played a role in the British legal reform in the 19th Century. 

Recently, a used bookshop called Bleak House Books has opened in a commercial building in San Po Kong. Its owner, Albert Wan, was previously a civil rights lawyer practising in the United States. "Having been a lawyer for 10 years, I wanted a change and to have a fresh start in my life. Opening a bookshop is not something I always wanted to do, but it may be a good way to challenge myself with something different," he says, adding that he can always return to the legal field if things do not work out, but that he would regret if he did not at least give a try.

It makes sense to do something fun in life when one can, but why open a used bookshop, and why in Hong Kong? Albert explains that, instead of sitting in the office all day and not communicating with people, he wanted to get involved in the community and he hoped opening a bookshop would help him do this.

"I first started an online bookshop at home, and then we sold books at the local markets at Sai Kung and Discovery Bay. Then we had a good enough reception, so it drove us to finally get a bricks-and-mortar shop," he says.

 

Opening a physical shop in Hong Kong is by no means an easy task. Luckily, a friend of Albert referred a landlord and he was supportive of Albert's idea (and, more importantly, offered decent rent). And so Bleak House Books was established in San Po Kong - a district out of the way of the bookshop's potential customers, most of whom live and work on the Hong Kong side. "Many of the Central or Admiralty people have never been to San Po Kong. That's why we still run the online shop, but the customer experience buying online and in the shop are different. We still want to persuade our readers to leave the Hong Kong side and go over to Kowloon," Albert says, adding that more book events will be organised in the future so as to attract the people from across the harbour to the bookshop.

 

Meanwhile, Albert also hopes to engage more readers in the neighbourhood. With this in mind, Bleak House Books has joined a cultural arts fair organised by several cultural groups located in San Po Kong. "We're excited about the fair and we have become a partner of a walking tour. My hope is that people who go to the arts fair will also come to our place to look at books," Albert says.

“Even though we don’t stock Chinese books, I don't feel threatened by the fact that Chinese readers don't read English books. There are enough local readers who read English books.” 

In fact, there is a wide range of good English books in the bookshop for readers to enjoy, from literature to business, essays to comics, and from fancy collectibles worth thousands to paperbacks priced as low as $30. "For better or worse, the stock in the bookshop reflects our taste and interest. But I tend not to stock only the books I like. I'm not a big fan of business books but we still have some, so as to give greater choice to our customers." Albert says that literary books such as those in the Penguin Classics range or books about Hong Kong are among the bestsellers, but the other day he also sold a book about boating exams. "There hasn't been a uniform interest among the public, which makes it harder for us because we have to stock more books," he says.

 

 

Opening a bricks-and-mortar store might be a milestone in Albert's new career path as a bookseller, but he admits that he is still learning about the retail business and consumer culture in Hong Kong, which is very much different than that in the United States. 'It's not easy, but it has been enjoyable," he says.

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