Bleak House Books
Bleak House Books in San Po Kong, Kowloon, is one of the furthermost bookshops from our corner of Hoxton Square and we were thrilled when co-founder Albert Wan and his team of booksellers decided to give Slightly Foxed a try shortly after they opened in 2017. We’ve been shipping our wares across the seas ever since, and still delight in the fact that booklovers of Hong Kong can browse our magazine and books in person.
Part bookshop, part community space, Bleak House Books is wholly independent and provides a literary haven high above the city streets. The bookshelves are lined with books both old and new, but all individually selected – an approach we share and celebrate here at Slightly Foxed.
We chatted to Albert about life in the bookshop, his favourite authors and the positive effects of providing good reading. And, to finish, there’s a round-up of recommendations from his fellow booksellers.
Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?
Bleak House Books is one of the few indie bookshops in Hong Kong that specializes in new and used English-language books.
To get to our bookshop, you need to take an elevator to the 27th floor of a high-rise office building. When you step out of the elevator you’ll be struck by the pleasant smell of our books and the wooden shelves on which they rest. The bookshop lies just a few steps beyond the elevator doors – quiet, peaceful, welcoming.
Our book selection is eclectic and reflects the interests, tastes and curiosities of the humans who work or have worked at Bleak House Books. Some of our more unique titles include books by local authors based in Hong Kong and books by indie publishers like Faber, New Directions, Drawn and Quarterly and, of course, Slightly Foxed. We also have sections in our bookshop dedicated to our collections of vintage pre-1960s pulp paperbacks and vintage children’s books and comics, including lots of old Beanos.
As an indie bookshop we also do what we can to support the community. We host poetry readings, film screenings, book talks and school visits, and we give talks and write articles when people ask us to.
What inspired you to become a bookseller?
I wouldn’t say I was ever ‘inspired’ to become a bookseller. I opened Bleak House Books because it gave me the clean break from my previous profession that I was looking for, which was running a solo criminal defence and civil rights law practice in the States. I saw bookselling as a challenge worth taking on. Not just because I like books, which I definitely do, but because communities the world over need more spaces like bookshops. Spaces where the focus is less on the self but on the ideas and thoughts of others.
What are your all-time favourite reads and why?
For serious reads, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. For less serious reads, The Stand (the complete and uncut edition) by Stephen King and any essay about baseball by Roger Angell. For inspiration, A Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut. Aside from being prescient, well-written and entertaining, the works I mention here all have a common trait: they were all written by people (yes, I realize they are all white men) who cared, and in the case of Stephen King, still care about the fate of the human race.
Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?
George Orwell (for, in Orwell’s own words, his ‘pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information’), Studs Turkel (for his love of life and his many stories), Emily Hahn with her pet gibbon Mr Mills (for her knowledge of Swahili obscenities, her love of the Chinese, and her fierce independence), and Shirley Jackson (because it’s Shirley Jackson!).
What is your favourite bookshop anecdote?
Even though we’ve only been open for two years we have had the good fortune of meeting many wonderful people at the bookshop and have experienced many memorable moments.
One that will always stay with me is when a good customer of ours asked if he could propose to his then fiancé in our bookshop. The ring was hidden inside a vintage Modern Library collection of Jane Austen’s novels that we had in our bookshop – in chapter 52 of Pride and Prejudice, the first book he ever gave his partner. We helped with the plot by shelving the book in an inconspicuous location while his partner was momentarily distracted browsing through the other books in our collection . . .
What are your top picks for winter 2019 and the New Year?
Christmas in Hong Kong will be a gloomy one this year with the situation as it is here. Even so we have decided to place our biggest Christmas book order yet. This is our way of expressing our solidarity with the community and all of those who are fighting for a better, more democratic Hong Kong. Here are some of our picks from this Christmas book order, with recommendations written by different members of the Bleak House Books family.
Albert: Nutshell Library (Boxed Set Reissue) by Maurice Sendak
When my kids were younger my wife and I read them a lot of Sendak. One of their favourite Sendak books was Chicken Soup with Rice. We still have our copy of that book at home; a beaten-up ex-library book.
Last Christmas I wanted to stock some Sendak titles for our readers but never got around to it. Instead, our shop manager made little Christmas tree ornaments using mini print-outs of pages from another Sendak classic, Alligators All Around. This year we will have these little box sets featuring pocket-sized reprints of four Sendak classics: Chicken Soup with Rice, Alligators All Around, One Was Johnny and Pierre.
Jenny: Meet Yourself on Sunday by Mass Observation
This sociological survey of 1940s Britain delves into how the everyman of the era spent his or her Sunday. The beauty of the Mass Observation series is the focus on the rich details of a quotidian that has since disappeared. Or has it? Sundays in Britain were for sleeping late, special breakfasts, leisurely reading, meeting friends, exploring new public houses, sharing drinks and food and long walks. Seventy years have passed since Meet Yourself on Sunday was first issued, but the greatest joy of leafing through this volume (ideally on a leisurely Sunday afternoon), recently reissued by Faber, is recognizing some of the truly universal rituals of rest and restoration the Mass Observation team have captured.
Angel: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
‘Euler’s formula shone like a shooting star in the night sky, or like a line of poetry carved on the wall of a dark cave.’
In lucid and straightforward, yet deceptively elegant prose, Yoko Ogawa writes about the intricacies of love, memory and loss, of that precious understanding between people. There is a crystalline stillness in her words, immersing the reader in a silence. This has been recently reissued in a beautiful gift edition by Vintage as part of its Japanese Classics series with cover art by Yuko Shimizu.
Bleak House Books
Unit 2705, 27/F
Well Tech Centre
9 Pat Tat Street
San Po Kong, Kowloon