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Beijing's Bookworm
by Valerie Sartor
2008-05-21 08:04:58
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“I’ve been in Beijing over fifteen years, actually I came here to study music at the Central Conservatory of Music but I think of myself as only an amateur musician,” Alexandra “Alex” Pearson said modestly, while sitting in front of her laptop at her place of business, The Bookworm.

“China’s not new to me; my parents worked for the British Embassy in Beijing so I lived here in the 80’s before returning by myself in the early 90’s. About five years ago I opened up The Bookworm in Beijing. A friend had a restaurant here previously, that’s how I found this location. Now, with my partners, we have two other locations as well, one in Chengdu that opened two years ago and one in Suzhou that opened last year.”

The Beijing Bookworm is a large three-room space that has 360 square meters on the second floor of a building in the San Li Tun area. Operating hours run from 9AM to 2AM daily. A library membership costs 200 RMB for 6 months and 300RMB for a year and is well worth it because the place is jammed full of books: donations, new books, books signed by authors who have given talks. With a membership customers receive a weekly newsletter as well, informing them of talks and events. One back room holds the main stock for the lending library, another serves as a dining area, although you can actually eat or drink anywhere. The third room in the back is full of worn but comfortable sofas and chairs and hosts new books by local and international authors, Lonely Planet travel guides and artistic trinkets.

Soft music filters through the rooms along with the aroma of strong coffee. People perch around a bar that serves a variety of coffees, alcoholic beverages and soft drinks. Others sit at tables, talking, reading or eating. Customers may order a la carte or choose a dinner from a prix fixe menu, which is diverse, western and well organized. Clever literary names are affixed to each entrée.

But clever is not really the proper term for a woman like Alex Pearson and ‘café’ or ‘library’ is not the way to describe the business she owns and operates. She’s much more than a capable businesswoman with a liking for classical music pre-dating Bartok. Actually, the woman is a throwback: one of those highly intelligent and remarkable females loyal to a higher calling: Alexandra Pearson is a salonnier dedicated to the support and enhancement of literature and music.

Her energy supports both Chinese and English authors, readers, writers and artists. Guests may arrive at almost any hour of the day or night; they browse, read and chat, while exchanging ideas, collecting and receiving information. The Bookworm truly is a modern day salon, an information hub geared toward ex-pats and English-speaking Chinese who take delight in hearing other intellectuals and outstanding authors present their thoughts in a warm, unpretentious atmosphere.

Literary salons originated in France, with one of first and most famous perhaps being the Hotel de Rambouillet run by Madame de Rambouillet in the 1620’s in Paris. Her rival, Madeline de Scudery, also hosted a scintillating salon. Here in Beijing Alex Pearson is the first but she has no rival and doubtless never will.

The British followed suite and glibly dubbed these intellectual women “bluestockings” for the next 300 years. Now, centuries later Ms. Pearson joined this club of high-principled and creative women. Along with them she has organized events, offered food and refreshment and assisted in developing relationships and contacts among literates and intellectuals by providing a comfortable venue. Historic European salons made a substantial impact upon the economic conditions, politics and the status of individuals by supporting mild social changes and enhancing intellectual culture. The Bookworm’s impact has not yet been measured but every ex-pat, writer or otherwise who knows the place cherishes it.

Today China is experiencing similar (but faster) growing pains paralleling the challenges England underwent: industrialization, expanding city populations with rural to urban migrations and an influx of immigrant cultures, all trying to settle and merge into the mainstream. Ms. Pearson has provided more than a refuge for creative people. Her modern day drawing room also acts as an important information hub for authors, musicians and literary figures, including a newly inaugurated annual two-week literary festival that takes place in the spring, between March and April. “This year’s first festival took eight months to plan but it was well worth it. It was great fun and I love the energy of Beijing,” Ms. Pearson said, “I like the freedom to try new ideas; I’m very committed to building a literary community here. Beijing’s got loads to offer, it’s an incredibly cosmopolitan city.”

Beijing is also a city transitioning very quickly. The speed and the changes don’t seem to faze Ms. Pearson, perhaps because she’s bilingual and an old China hand. “Sure, in some ways things are more complicated – the tax laws are changing all the time and I have a lawyer and an accountant – but in some ways things are better because they’re more systemized. You can work within the system and you know where you’re going, plus there’s a bigger variety now of everything, from food choices to foreigners walking through the door.”

The pollution doesn’t bother Alex either. Flexible, she walks, cycles or drives to get around easily and avoids going places during peak hours. She did confide that her challenges regarding The Bookworm are generally human based but manageable. “Keeping good people is one of my problems,” she said, “The Bookworm employs 30 people in Beijing; people come and go. And of course there are supply glitches: someone has to figure out what to do when no mascarpone is to be had in Beijing for tiramisu, but one learns to accommodate and bend. My life as the owner requires me to do more than host literary evenings. I spend a lot of time on researching books, contacting authors, speaking to publishing houses and communicating online with my partners in Cheng Du and Su Zhou.” But Ms. Pearson said clearly that she does not view herself as a restaurateur or a librarian; “I’m just a person who wants to create a center in support of literature, of authors and interesting people, explorers and musicians.”

This magnificent woman has done exactly that. Each year it gets easier because The Bookworm’s international and domestic reputation expands, with the website becoming more sophisticated, the guest authors more renowned and erudite. Meanwhile Alex the Sino-salonnierre continues transforming herself. Her magnanimous persona conveys shades of Gertrude Stein, a great dame known for her connections and friendly relations with brilliantly talented and artistic people at the center of contemporary art & social change, and she also gives off strong hints of Madame de Stael, another woman of unusual intellectual power who had the simple but profound gift of cultivating talent in others. Alexandra Pearson, like female salon keepers before her, follows Horace’s definition of the aim of poetry: aut delectare aut produce est; to both please and educate.

Alex Pearson can be reached at books@beijingbookworm.com


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