Bookstores that give women 'a room of their own'

Writer: Li Dan  |  Editor: Zhang Zeling  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2024-03-29

A salon held at Daixuan Books in Bao'an District. File photo

Upon entering Daixuan Books, tucked away in a bustling urban village in Bao'an District, one might wonder if it is really a bookstore.

Snacks and drinks of all sorts find their way onto the counter near the entrance. Colorful posters advertising recently held events cover the opposite wall: a mini exhibition featuring female artists and free health lectures with a focus on female puberty.

Fueled by discussions about Chizuko Ueno, Japan's “best-known feminist” in Chinese society, and the ascending economic and social status of women, niche bookstores catering to the tastes and needs of female readers have found popularity in Chinese cities, including Shenzhen.

Reading for an answer

In general bookstores, libraries, and recommended reading lists, women writers are far from being represented in proportion to their population.

Women in Literary Arts found that in 2017, women authored between 30 and 50% of books reviewed in major U.S. and U.K. literary publications.

A public space in Half Bookstore in Nanshan District. File photo

That is certainly not the case in Half Bookstore, which opened last September in a quiet community in Nanshan District.

Zoe, owner of the store, lines her bookshelves with works from female authors, with a focus on sociology, anthropology, and psychology.

Visitors will find feminist classics such as Ueno’s “Understanding Feminism” and “Disgust Against Women,” Marilyn French’s debut novel “The Women’s Room,” and “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez. They will also encounter a road thriller by Amy Butcher and lesser-known works by South Korean authors.

Zoe often goes the extra mile by comparing various Chinese translations of the same book and acquiring the best version for her store. She regularly announces newly acquired books on her Xiaohongshu account (a Chinese social media platform targeting female users). “The readers share their opinions with me and inquire about books. Some also confide in me the things that trouble them in life,” Zoe said.

To give customers a safe undisturbed space where they can feel totally relaxed, Zoe uses post-it notes to communicate with them. The visitors have responded by writing heart-warming words that express their appreciation for Zoe in a notebook.

“Words of comfort may bring relief,” she said. “But to find an answer and solution to one’s troubles, they need to arrive at revelations with new knowledge absorbed from the books, which is why I chose to open a bookstore.”

A former employee of an internet tech giant, Zoe quit her job and spent a gap year in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, where she encountered an indie bookstore that kindled a desire to open one herself.

“Any woman who wants independence and happiness needs ‘a room of their own,’” Zoe said, referencing American author Virginia Woolf’s famous line. “My bookstore offers such a space. Besides, the right book can be the key to tackling one’s troubles,” she added.

In a villa in Bantian, Longgang District, three female psychiatrists opened a book bar that serves a similar purpose.

Calling their book bar “Jianta Books,” which means “See Her Books,” the three hope that the venue will provide a sanctuary for women when they feel lonely or stressed.

A supportive network

With a counseling workshop on the second floor of the bookstore, the three wish that more women, especially those who cannot afford counseling, can find strength in books.

Like Half Bookstore, Jianta Books arranges regular seminars and other events to help women bond and support each other.

One such seminar focused on the income gap between men and women, a research subject of Harvard’s Claudia Goldin.

Goldin found that differences in pay and labor force participation are not due to biological differences, but to the differences in the division of unpaid caregiving responsibilities between heterosexual couples.

“Many who attended the event shared that they face the challenge of balancing work and family,” said Zhili, a co-owner of Jianta.

“Too much is asked of a woman as she tries to be a good mom and achieve a successful career at the same time,” she said.

“We hope to help women see their own need for growth and fulfillment instead of putting priority on what is expected of them.”

Zoe agrees with Zhili, stating that giving women a space to freely express themselves and find solace in each other’s company is as important as giving them a space to read and think undisturbed. She too organizes free discussions and movie screenings in her Half Bookstore from time to time.

Whether it is building a sense of connection or helping to convey the experiences and voices of other women, a women-owned bookstore is never simply a place to sell books.

Daixuan Books, which opened Feb. 8, 2023, is the first in Shenzhen that serves a female clientele.

Dr. Ren, the bookstore’s owner and a practicing psychological consultant and marriage counselor, has found unlikely friendships with many teenagers and their moms.

Some girls would visit the bookstore every day after school during the weeks before their finals, using it as an alternative study room.

“Sex education in primary and middle schools focuses unanimously on the physiological aspects of boys and girls,” Ren said. “Knowledge about health and puberty is certainly important, but it’s just as important to shatter sex stereotypes and build a trusting, mutually respecting relationship between the two sexes early on,” she added.

Middle school girls are often perceived as less proficient than boys in math, which in fact results from a stereotype that needs to be shattered, Ren pointed out. She added that such stereotypes have a negative impact on girls when they choose future careers. Daixuan Books regularly organizes film screenings and salon discussions on topics like preventing domestic violence and campus bullying, wishing to raise awareness and help create bonds between individuals in the community.

“These days we talk a lot about sustainability in the growth of economy,” Ren said. “The concept also applies to the sustainable growth of individuals, which hinges upon their psychological and physical health. A supportive social network comprised of friendly strangers acts as a cornerstone of the sustainable growth of urban dwellers.”

“While profitability isn’t my primary goal, my ambition is for the bookstore to serve as a nurturing space that contributes, even in a modest way, to this vision.” 

Upon entering Daixuan Books, tucked away in a bustling urban village in Bao'an District, one might wonder if it is really a bookstore.