Chinese bookworms 'pay if they want' in Nanjing

Story highlights

  • Nanjing home to China's first "honesty bookstore"
  • Customers free to pay what they want
  • Venture hopes to inspire love of reading

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(CNN)A busy public square in the Chinese city of Nanjing is home to an unusual experiment.

For almost two months, the country's first "honesty bookshop" has occupied a sidewalk on Hanzhong Road in the city's Gulou district.
    With no cashier or other staff keeping tabs, the store relies on trust for payment.
    Amazingly, most customers cough up although Zhu Min, the marketing director of the company that runs it, says takings are 5% less than they should be.
    But making money isn't the venture's main goal and they go easy on those who take books without paying.
    "If they can really finish the books, it doesn't matter if they took the books for free," he says.
    "In fact, we are really happy to witness so many people taking books from the honesty bookshop."
    After browsing the four wooden bookshelves, customers must drop their money in a lock box.
    Prices are set at 30% of the cover price.
    Zhu hopes that his sidewalk store, which sells on average 60 books a day, will rekindle interest in reading.
    Like elsewhere, China has seen e-books chip away at the market for traditional books and many independent booksellers are struggling.

    In for the long haul

    The company behind the honesty bookstore concept hopes the initiative will rekindle Nanjing's love for books.
    Zhu got permission from the city government to use the sidewalk and says he's determined to make it a long-term project.
    It's run by Popular Bookmall, which operates eight bookstores in China.
    He says the store is open every day, except when it rains, and it's locked up each night.
    "People stand in front of the bookshop, and ask themselves whether they should pay and how much they should pay. It's a process of cleansing the thoughts of our hearts," he says.
    Lofty goals aside, the streetside venture allows his company to clear old inventory.

    A date with a book

    It's not the first time Popular Bookmall has employed inventive tactics to try and turn the city's busy residents into bookworms.
    In September last year, the company laid out 1,000 books and reading lamps on the ground and encouraged people "to go on a date" with a book.
    Nanjing is also home to Librairie Avant-Garde, a cavernous retail and performance space hidden away in an underground car park that was once voted China's most beautiful bookstore.
    It's since become a cultural landmark and tourist attraction in the city.
    "Independent book shops represent the well being of the city," Qian Xiaohua, Libraire Avant-Garde's owner told CNN in 2013.
    "When a city is losing its bookshops, it's actually losing something in its soul."
    If the success of the Honesty Bookstore is any guide, Nanjing's is in pretty good shape.