Albert Wan, the proprietor of Bleak House Books, arrived earlier than usual for the Hong Kong store’s last day of operation. In August he had announced his decision to shut down the independent English-language bookstore, citing the political climate in the city.

Readying the San Po Kong store for business for the last time on Friday, Wan swept the floors and secured the loosened posters on the half-empty bookshelves. The owner told HKFP that 70 per cent of the books were gone.

Owner of Bleak House Books Albert Wan. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“We’ve had a very positive, strong and supportive response, almost overwhelming just in terms of messages and people visiting, and people ordering books from us online from overseas, that too has been part of the response,” said Wan, a Chinese-American lawyer.

“So it’s been inspiring and sad at the same time.”

Bleak House Books. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The owner said in his Facebook announcement back in August that his family would leave the city after the store is shut, and that “the backdrop to these developments is, of course, politics.”

The store was littered with posters, signs, and stickers, many of them from the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019.

Stickers of protest slogans used during the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019 displayed in Bleak House Books. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I think it was very much just something that we knew would have to happen at some point, but we tried to put it off, I tried to put it off, whether it was leaving Hong Kong or closing the bookshop,” said Wan.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“It was more of a gradual process, a gradual decision-making process that led up to our decision to both leave the city and also close the bookshop. There was no one single event or thing that happened that caused us to do this, it’s just a combination of everything that’s been happening over the past few years.”

Owner of Bleak House Books Albert Wan. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Wan, who opened Bleak House Books in 2017, said he and his family would move back to the United States. “Maybe we can open Bleak House Books in the US.”

With the lease on the store lasting for another year, Wan will have to find someone to take it over. “I think the most important thing right now is just to settle the affairs with the bookshop and also for our family.”

Customers in Bleak House Books on its last day of operation. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I think as a person who is fortunate to have citizenship in a different country, once you see things going bad, and not just that, but you see things in the future getting worse, you think about what you need to do to survive personally, as a family, and you think about the kids.”

“I don’t know if there will ever be a moment where I will accept it, or not get angry thinking about why we’re leaving, but again I think you have to put it in perspective. I mean, people elsewhere have it a lot worse than we do.”

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Wan did not elaborate on his concerns on Friday but in a previous interview had said he had questions about the Beijing-imposed national security law. Critics say this has had a chilling effect on free expression and cultural life, a claim denied by the authorities.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

After the store opened at 10:00 a.m. for the last time, it was not long before the first customers arrived. HKFP spoke to some readers about their purchases, as well as Wan’s personal favourite from the shop.

‘For obvious reasons’

Matt, who had just finished a shift at the fire station, was one of the first customers. It was his first visit although his wife, who was not with him on Friday, was a frequent visitor.

Matt bought two books and some cards on the last day of Bleak House Books. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The firefighter bought two items: Tintin and Alph-art, and a collection of advertisements on the now-defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.

“[I bought] this for obvious reasons. Apple Daily is gone, I saw that this had all of 2020’s advertisements, that’s why I bought it, to read it myself or give it to a friend,” said Matt.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“This is Bleak House’s last day, I want to buy whatever I can,” said Matt. “I draw sometimes, that’s why I bought Tintin, and the cards are for my friends.”

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“Even though this is my first visit, it’s a pity having to see people working hard in Hong Kong leaving for various reasons. But I still support their efforts over the past years.”

‘A store with heart’

Monica carried three books she had bought earlier. She wanted a photo with the owner while holding the volumes – Last Waltz in Vienna, as well as two books in French. It took her several attempts to secure one of the items, a book by French writer Victor Hugo.

Monica bought three books from Bleak House Books on Tuesday, but went to the bookstore to take photos with the owner on the bookstore’s last day. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“This is very special, because I tried ordering it before, and they [Bleak House Books] told me that another person had ordered it,” said Monica.

“Actually I didn’t expect to see the book here when I came to the store a couple of days ago, they said they couldn’t get to [contact] the person who ordered it, and that they could keep the book for me. That’s how I got it.”

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I think Hong Kong does not have a lot of bookstores that put so much effort into book selection,” said Monica. “It is a bookstore with heart.”

When asked if she thinks she will be able to find a substitute, she said it would be difficult, “There are other English-language second-hand bookstores but they are not as attentive.”

Taking leave to visit

Just after opening, Wan put out a handful of copies of Apple Daily’s 2020 advertisements. All copies on display were gone before 1:00 p.m.. Ms T was the second person to buy a copy on Friday.

Miss T took half a day off from work to visit Bleak House Books on its last day. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

T, who works in the education sector, took a half-day off work to visit Bleak House Books before it closes for good.

“I have always wanted to visit, but because it’s in East Kowloon, which is quite far away from where I live and where I work, I had not had the chance to come,” said T. “Knowing that it’s their last day today, I really wanted to come and I found the opportunity to take leave.”

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I think it’s a very local place, but its style is very westernised…they have more books from other countries, as well as a large variety of choices…it’s very comfortable here.”

Owner’s choice

It took a while before Wan selected a children’s book, Ira Sleeps Over, from a countertop when HKFP asked which was his favourite book in the shop. “I have fond memories of this book, just as a kid when I was small,” he said.

Owner of Bleak House Books Albert Wan’s favourite book from the store. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The lawyer said he read the book to his two children, aged seven and nine, but “I don’t know if it’s their favourite.”

“It just reminds me of growing up in New York, it’s funny, it’s well illustrated, well-written…it’s for sentimental reasons,” said Wan.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

While over half the store’s stockpile has been cleared, the lawyer said in August and again on Friday that he would try donating the remaining books to other local independent bookshops and “local institutions that want them.”

“When I said that [in August], I didn’t really imagine that people would buy so many of our books, so I thought we would have more books to donate.”

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.