Building bridges with books: How an iconic bookstore came to Malaysia

Mercy Wu and Joseph Yeoh talk about the opening of the Eslite Spectrum Store – the first one in South-East Asia. Photo: Saufi Nadzri (via Starhill)

As far as scions of notable families go, both Joseph Yeoh and Mercy Wu epitomise what the progeny of prominent families do while carrying out the vision of their forefathers.

These two poster children for generational family businesses are both stamping their own mark with their accomplishments, in this case with a partnership which has manifested with the opening of the Eslite Spectrum Store – the first one in South-East Asia – at the newly refurbished Starhill in Kuala Lumpur.

When it was first announced back in 2020 that The Starhill would sign on Eslite Spectrum as its anchor tenant, there was a flurry of excitement, not just among bibliophiles but hipsters and trend setters too, because for those in the know, Eslite Spectrum is not just a bookstore but a creative and cultural lifestyle hub with books occupying only 35% of its 70,000-plus sq ft (6,503-plus sq m) space. The rest will be taken up by restaurants, cafes, fashion, arts and crafts, stationery and gift items.

Mercy Wu and Joseph Yeoh. Photo: Saufi Nadzri (via Starhill)Mercy Wu and Joseph Yeoh. Photo: Saufi Nadzri (via Starhill)“I first saw Eslite when I was in Hong Kong about 10 years ago,” Yeoh, adding that he was taken in by how beautiful and complete it was. “It encapsulated three to four floors and even though I was quite young then, I thought the concept was stunning.” What impressed young Joseph was the fact that not only did the Eslite Hong Kong sell books but also a lifestyle element such as a cafe serving bubble tea, arts and crafts, handicrafts and travel paraphernalia.

“I remember thinking to myself then what a dream this would be if such a store could come to Malaysia.” And through Yeoh’s aspiration, Malaysians will get to enjoy all that Eslite has to offer when the Eslite Spectrum Kuala Lumpur opens to the public on Dec 17.

Hailed by Time Magazine as “Asia’s Best Bookstore” while CNN named their Songyan store in Taipei among the “14 Coolest Department Stores in the World”. Eslite has become a cultural icon in their home turf in Taiwan where one of its stores is open 24 hours.

And who else better to explain the phenomenon of Eslite Spectrum other than its chairperson and daughter of the founder, Mercy Wu. “My father founded Eslite as an inclusive place where everyone could visit and was equal. He believed books was one way to reach out and touch people,” Wu says during a short trip to KL.

And an astute businesswoman, she’s the first to tell you that selling books isn’t the most profitable business to be in.

“When Eslite first started, it made a loss for 15 years,” she confesses, adding that was precisely the reason Eslite expanded to other areas of retail, what Wu calls “creative retail” such as F&B, fashion, crafts and gifts, to leverage the traffic in the bookstore and make the bookstore sustainable.

However, her endearing honesty belies a steely determination to make what her father started initially as a pet project into an omni-channel business which today encompasses both brick and mortar stores as well as an online presence.

With 47 stores and counting both in Taiwan and overseas, (the Eslite Spectrum store at The Starhill will be the 48th store) Eslite operates a slick and well-oiled business model despite its folksy and unpretentious image. And Wu’s down-to-earth and unassuming persona just reinforces Eslite’s well-crafted profile.

The interior of an Eslite Spectrum in Taiwan. – Photo: Eslite SpectrumThe interior of an Eslite Spectrum in Taiwan. – Photo: Eslite Spectrum

But does Wu think online stores will eventually overtake physical ones?

“We started to face this challenge and competition from online stores back in 2017, so we changed our strategy and that was how was born. We describe our business model as one of human touch with digital links,” she says, alluding to the idea that both brick and mortar stores could co-exist with ecommerce as each fulfils a different function.

Luckily for Eslite and its legion of fans, Wu’s father, Robert Wu made a fortune in real estate in Taiwan and he was able to sustain Eslite during its loss-making years. “Today only one-third of our turnover come from books,” she discloses much to the surprise of everybody.

“You have to sell a lot of books to make a decent profit. Because we are diversified, there’s no pressure to make books the primary source of our income and we welcome everyone to just browse and enjoy the atmosphere in our store.”

And the atmosphere at Eslite Spectrum Kuala Lumpur will be dynamic and ever-evolving with cultural activities such as book and poetry readings, workshops for children, music performances and humanities lectures planned throughout the year.

Over 30 arts and cultural activities are planned during December alone, a mere drop in the ocean considering approximately 5,000 lectures, themed exhibitions and musical performances take place annually in their stores in Taiwan and overseas.

Back to Yeoh – the vice president of YTL Land & Development overseeing the retail division – who views securing Eslite Spectrum as an anchor tenant as major coup as well as a golden goose in his retail portfolio.

“We started the refurbishment of Starhill in the last quarter of 2019,” he says, adding as an adjunct the obvious fact that the pandemic stalled much of their reopening plans and tenancy take-up. “The Starhill isn’t large compared to other malls in the city but it’s designed to give people a unique experience when they visit.”

And that unique experience Yeoh talks about is summed up succinctly in The Starhill’s new slogan “Home of the Tastemakers” where not just luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Rolex and Audemars Piguet can be found but also stores dedicated to men’s health, women’s wellness, sports and fitness, beauty and grooming. “It’s not your typical shopping mall and with Eslite Spectrum opening up, they will fill in most of the blanks.”

Wu on the other hand believes Eslite Spectrum will be a bridge to connect different cultures, apt considering Malaysia’s multiculturalism. “Our goal is to make people feel the warmth and a sense of belonging when they visit Eslite. We want it to be a sociable place that welcomes everybody and fosters a sense of humanity through reading.” And needless to say, she feels reading is of paramount importance. “Reading settles your mind as you need to digest the words. This teaches you to be more reflective and that you don’t have to react immediately.”

As the second son and the middle child of business tycoon Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, Yeoh wears the mantle with a realistic slant, taking on his role in the behemoth which is the YTL Group in his stride. “I admit I am in a privileged position but there’s also pressure,” he says pragmatically. “My family can help me but not everything is handed to me. There’s expectations of course and to meet them it takes self-drive and can always do better and go the extra mile especially for those who rely on you.”

But for now, it’s his immediate family – wife Jennifer Friis and his five children – whom he relies on. “I’ve known my wife since we were four years old and she’s an inspiration to me. She had a promising political career which she gave up and now devotes her time to a refugee school she set-up from scratch. When I come home telling her about a hitch in a business deal and she in turn tells me about the problems these marginalised children are facing, it puts everything into perspective.”

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YTL , The Starhill , Eslite , books , bookstore


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