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Jan 09, 2017

Five years might not seem a long period of time, but in China it’s just long enough to devise an entirely new plan for everything. In 2011, the instant messaging app WeChat had only just launched and was still virtually unknown. I also remember walking into the offices of fledgling question-and-answer website Zhihu that year, in a space they shared with a few small magazines in Beijing’s Sanlitun. Back then, Sanlitun was a dump. Today, however, the area is known for its high-end shopping and effervescent nightlife, and many of the businesses lucky enough to have made their start there are now worth upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars.

To me, 2011 seems like a completely different era now. It was just over five years ago, of course, but back then there wasn’t as much money flying around in Shanghai. I feel this is something worth remembering, because if it is forgotten, what my friends and I achieved in the years that followed — as well as how and why we did it — may all be forgotten as well.

That year my friends, who included journalists, writers, artists, local jacks-of-all-trades, and a few other goofballs thrown in for good measure, used to frequent a cafe on Fuxing Road in downtown Shanghai. It carried the utterly unpronounceable name “Boxha,” and therefore was hardly a popular joint. I believe it has since been replaced by one of those organic coffee shops you see everywhere in the city these days.

It was during the endless nights at Boxha that we started talking about starting a library: a place of our own invention of books we loved and were willing to share, people we wanted to share them with, dark bitter coffee flowing non-stop, and exciting philosophical conversations with renowned authors.

My friends and I were an impressionable bunch of artsy, Western-minded Shanghai youths who grew up reading Barthes and Sartre before we understood that life has no sympathy for deconstruction and existential crises. We thought then that Shanghai was generous enough to shelter our senseless creations, even if there wasn’t enough capital around to help them live up to their potential.

We were too bookish to be any good at constructing our cafe, of course. Fortunately, a couple of acquaintances in our neighborhood found us a small ground-floor room in a former colonial villa, tucked away among a residential block of old lane houses in Jing’an District. It was a place that quite literally gave shelter to an entire lane of dreamers too poor to pay commercial rent elsewhere.

Five of us went into business together. While our two neighborhood fixers procured cheap secondhand furniture from wizened antique dealers, we filled shelf upon shelf with books. My partner, Shi Jianfeng, suggested naming the library after one of our favorite novels, Roberto Bolaño’s “2666.”

Xiaokun and Liu Lei would take turns standing watch at the end of our little lane, shouting to us to shut the door in case any officials came to harangue us.

We opened the library in the spring of 2011. At our unofficial opening party, so many people showed up that even the police couldn’t be kept from attending. The first months were productive and more than lived up to our expectations. 2666 Library was soon a popular place, despite our measly 30-person capacity and our broken air conditioner. We began hosting readings and film screenings. We sold library cards to committed and casual readers alike.

Writers and even some celebrities came to visit. Emma Donoghue, the writer of the Academy Award-nominated film “Room,” came and signed her book of the same name for us. Enrique Vila-Matas, a friend of the late Bolaño, blogged about us. The filmmaker Jia Zhangke signed his book for us. The writer Colm Tóibín had his picture taken at the library. For a while, it seemed that word of mouth had outstripped our ability to cope, as people from out of town came looking for us. Most were surprised by how shabby the place actually was, but they still drank our terrible coffee and chatted amiably with our staff. Sometimes, when we hosted a particularly great author, customers overflowed out onto the streets.

I loved it all, and still think of this period as the best years of my life. But that was before my beloved city’s rent prices and living costs started to soar, and people got too anxious about money to spend time reading and thinking about more abstract things.

Despite the library’s success, there was the inescapable fact that we were no good at making money. There were, we know, much better-run book cafes, but the library was never supposed to be an exercise in profiteering. For a while we rented the place out to whoever was willing to pay, from tarot readers to party planners.

We all had day jobs — “bread jobs,” as Kafka used to say. Jianfeng and I worked in media. Hua Jian, better known by his pseudonym, “Btr,” was an accountant who quit his job to become editor of the now-defunct Chutzpah literary magazine — one of the handful of magazines that shared office space with Zhihu.

Qian Xiaokun and Liu Lei, our neighborhood fixers, ran other, more profitable businesses and truly lived up to their reputations as wheeler-dealers. We were located in a residential compound and therefore enjoyed low rent — but we were not considered a legitimate commercial business and could have been shut down at any time. I still laugh when I think of those hilarious moments when Xiaokun and Liu Lei would take turns standing watch at the end of our little lane, shouting to us to shut the door in case any officials came to harangue us. It was quite the game of cat and mouse.

Before long, however, the local authorities did decide to shut us down. In late 2013, officials began clearing out all the businesses in the compound run from non-commercial properties, dismissing any possibility of running our humble library there. We simply could not afford commercial rent; for a while we tried to save the library by affiliating ourselves with “cultural property” organizations that aimed to preserve and grow literary establishments, but it wasn’t for us. After all, if we were barely capable of managing a very small literature library — how could we hope to entertain grander business aspirations?

Now, several years later, 2666 Library remains my fondest memory. The failed dream we cooked up in a failed cafe was lucky to even see the light of day for as long as it did: two years in total. Thinking back, what is most nonsensical to me now is that we made it all happen and let it all go in such good humor. To this day, I still clearly remember the morning we moved everything out, and the moving company charging us a fortune for all the books, complaining that they were too heavy. We paid them what we could. Nobody was very sad about it.

(Header image: Customers visit the 2666 Library, Shanghai, July 6, 2013. Ding Jia/IC)