Four months after his secondhand bookshop successfully raised over HK$152,000 from the public and fended off eviction, Surdham Lam looks at the mountain of books around him, pondering the future.

Flow temporarily reopened this past week, and was due to shut its doors again on September 14, as per an agreement with the landlord. But on Friday afternoon, Lam was still stationed behind the counter at Lyndhurst Terrace, tending to customers – for now.

Surdham Lam and Lady Tang in the late Sir David Tang’s reading room in Hong Kong.

“A lot of things were out of our expectations. We’ve been waiting for things to fall back onto the right track, and it’s already been three to four months,” he told HKFP.

But this was not the only unexpected turn of events for the much-loved 20-year old shop. After philanthropist Sir David Tang passed away last month, Lam learned that his estate had donated one of his book collections to his store.

Following a visit to Tang’s library on Saturday to meet the late businessman’s widow, Lady Lucy Tang, Lam told HKFP that he was set to inherit over 1,000 titles from the estate.

Sir David Tang’s library.

Lam did not know either of them personally prior to the exchange. However, Sir David Tang had been keen to put the books to good use so that his reading passion would “flow” on, Lam stated. Lady Tang then set out to find bookstores she could trust the collections with, and one of them was Flow, whose mission she supported. A “flowbrary” will be set up in Tang’s name, Lam said.

Back in Central, negotiations for a tenancy extension are underway whilst Lam seeks to launch a new initiative: a monthly sponsorship scheme to promote the exchange of books. He hopes it will also provide a long-term income stream to guarantee Flow’s existence.

“We’re called ‘Flow’, not ‘Sell’,” Lam jokes.

See also: Flow: The endangered bookshop where profit takes second place to building relationships

The scheme involves inviting readers to make a regular contribution, starting at HK$100, which would entitle them to receive two books priced under HK$80 at the shop, and two books to give away to students in Hong Kong. They can keep their own books for an indefinite amount of time, but remain at liberty to put them up for exchange within Flow’s network.

Exchange network

Flow book exchange libraries will also be set up at secondary schools; with five schools already signed up for the project. Lam said it aims to create a user-friendly, instant supply of books for students who would like to expand their horizons. All students across Hong Kong will be encouraged to join in.

Other readers will be able to contact fellow Flow sponsors using hashtags on Instagram to facilitate the exchange of books among themselves too. No questions are asked if a book is lost, as Lam emphasised that the spirit of the project is “sharing.”

Photo: Flow, via Facebook.

“We hope that this will promote a new method of book exchange, and establish mutual trust between people. We’d like to really see the books ‘flow’ again and again. With current book exchange initiatives, the books usually only circulate once. We want to cultivate a common spirit of sharing,” Lam added.

More than anything, he wishes to cultivate a sense of belonging amongst his readers, promote the benefits of co-ownership and a sharing economy, and build a movement from scratch alongside his loyal customers.

“Before this, Flow was a more traditional bookshop… But now, I have the courage. It’s a more effective and systematic way of implementing the initial concept, and it can keep the bookshop’s operations alive.”

Whilst money raised by sympathetic Hongkongers and patrons helped repay some of the debts the bookshop owed to its landlord, the store’s lack of sustainable funds meant that uncertainties still laid ahead, Lam said.

Surdham Lam.

There were still remaining debts, as the target stated during the crowdfunding round was not the full amount owed, but rather one the lawyer gave him with the aim of “cutting losses,” according to Lam. Now, he is seeking not just to clear the debt, but to raise sufficient funds to secure a long lease. With this, he will need to produce months of operating expenses.

Slow start

Lam said that, while there have been readers who enquired about the the sponsorship scheme over the past two weeks, so far the response has mostly been lukewarm. He attributes this to his failure to clarify what the project involves and express it clearly on social media.

“It would be amazing if the readers can respond to our call again – then we would really have bargaining power with the landlord,” Lam said.

Lam acknowledged that there were those who expressed concerns he would “disappear from thin air,” but he promised that he would do no such thing: “It was my mismanagement and I made mistakes,” he admitted. “I’m hoping to solve all these problems once and for all and come up with a system.”

Photo: Flow via Facebook.

He said he would love to stay at the current location in Central owing to its convenience and the difficulty of hunting for a new location. However, he said: “We’re well-prepared – over the next two weeks, we’ll arrange for all kinds of different outcomes, be it moving to a new location in Central or otherwise.”

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.