BEIJING – It started out as a modest bookstore and ended up becoming an oasis of freedom, frequented by writers and bookworms who came to discuss issues that, at times, were not politically correct.
But almost 20 years after it was established, The Bookworm has been forced to close its doors.
During its lifetime, this Beijing bookstore, which shut down on Nov. 17, organized thousands of events that dealt with topics generally considered to be highly sensitive for the authorities.
Every year, the shop attracted authors from within the country and abroad.
Zhang Lijia, the author of “Lotus,” a novel about prostitution in China, was among its clients.
Qiu Xiaolong, the writer of a crime novel that talks about corruption within the system through satire and dark humor, was another regular.
Both write in English and their books are not published in China.
“The bookworm is a series of communities, a series of small groups with different particular interests that have found this to be a welcoming space. Over the years it’s become a cultural hub and a community center of sorts for all different types of people here in Beijing,” general manager and co-founder David Cantalupo told EFE.
But like many other capital cities, Beijing is heavily influenced by the effects of real estate expansion, a rise in tourism and urban displacement along with a strange trend: many places are forced to shut once the authorities declare the property doesn’t comply with new security requirements.
NEW PRICES, NEW REGULATIONS
When asked about the reasons that led the store to close, Cantalupo said it was “because our lease was expiring. We were not kicked out, we were just not able to renew it. Now we are looking for locations.”
He suspected the authorities were trying to get rid of places that are not in favor.
Some of his collaborators believe the authorities were doing away with cultural communities under the pretext of carrying out urban rehabilitation projects.
“This building is not a security risk or a danger, it’s just that it was never supposed to be rented out. But 20 years ago the regulations were not so strong,” Cantalupe said.
He said the authorities were critical of the store because of the controversial topics that were discussed at its events.
“Right now we are looking around but the rent prices are a bit high,” he said of finding a new venue to continue the project.
“I am optimistic,” he said.
VICTIMS OF GENTRIFICATION
The Bookworm is not the first case of a cultural center being shut down.
Last year, several art galleries in the Caochangdi area, renowned for being developed by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, were forced to close after receiving notifications of demolition.
Ai, who was under house arrest in Beijing in 2011, ended up packing his bags and left to live as a dissident in Berlin.
In this area in the northeastern part of the capital, there were more than 20 galleries, academies and art institutions, among them Sarthe and X Gallery – the first spaces to be notified of the forced relocations.
In recent years, such warnings heralded the arrival of excavators, the enforcement arm of a “beautification” campaign officially responsible for clearing these places.
Small businesses in “hutongs” – traditional alleyways with single storied homes – have fallen victim to the policy and had to shut and follow the new security directives along with other requisites, such as reducing the number of windows or painting the doors and walls certain colors.
Beijing’s gentrification has been widely debated across social media platforms in China, with an article by Zhang Guochen receiving more than 5 million views on Weibo a few years ago.
His perspective on Beijing’s urban development – with the forced migration of workers from rural areas or the economic inequalities that it created – did not go unnoticed by the authorities.
Two days after it was published, it had to be taken down from all social media, and the hashtag was blocked on Weibo.
The author had to apologize for “spreading bad energy.”
Zhang spoke about the recent reforms suffered by the city, where old neighborhoods had been demolished to make way for new joints, ostentatious malls and cafes, creating “one city one life,” overcrowded and expensive, “inhabited by workers trapped in a never-ending routine.”
Zhang said that in the last 10 years, it never stopped, despite efforts to control the real estate sector, the traffic or the population.
He added, “Beijing is a tumor and nobody can stop it from growing.”