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Loss of bookstores signals crossroads of virtual, real

Taipei's Zhongqing South Rd. at one time had a reputation for its bookstores. But now many have closed down, leaving book lovers lamenting the decline of the so-called “Book Street.”

Why are we lamenting? What are we really losing?

In its heyday, Zhongqing South Rd., which connects the area around the Taipei Railway Station to the Presidential Office, had as many as 120 bookstores, according to one newspaper report.

But now it has less than 30 and two of them are set to close their doors next month, the report said. Filling in the vacant lots are cafes, bread shops and steak houses.

Book Street shop owners complain that the rents have become extremely unaffordable, leaving their businesses profitless. They also cite pricing competition from online bookstores.

They say the Chinese government has been subsidizing bookstores in China and forbids online competitors from running cut-throat pricing campaigns. These Zhongqing South bookstore owners question why the Taiwan authorities are not doing the same to help them.

It is understandable why these bookstore owners are complaining. But why are book lovers also missing them?

The decline of Book Street or the disappearing of bookstores does not mean that readers will stop buying books or have nowhere else to buy them.

Books are now widely available from online bookstores and there are more and more e-books downloadable to electronic devices such as computers, the Kindle and smartphones.

Books from these channels are even cheaper and with the e-book form, readers can store thousands of books in electronic devices which they can slip inside their pockets. They don't need to worry about lack of space at home to house their collections.

But going to bookstores is not just about buying books, although the possibility of owning them is essential and sets the activity apart from going to libraries, which offer a very similar experience.

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