Off the Book: Passion for books shelved teaching aspirations of Bookazine owner Arti Mirchandani

John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” This piece of wisdom from a former member of the Fab Four could be a perfect summation of how Arti Mirchandani’s life and career in books have unfolded. Coming from the entrepreneurial family behind Hong Kong retailer Bookazine, her youthful passion was art, not books, and this love of visual creativity drove her to study art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University).

Her parents, Mohan and Nisha Mirchandani started the family business in 1985 with a bookstore in the Hopewell Centre at a time when there were no “big” English-language bookshops in Hong Kong. Mohan had previously moved to Hong Kong from Nepal to work with his uncle and they started off as distributors of books and magazines, initially selling to street hawkers and chain stores.

Young Arti was never much of a reader even though her father would come home with boxes full of books. “He would sigh and say, ‘I am the king of books, and my daughter doesn’t read!’” she relates with a laugh.

The art of teaching

Before heading to Melbourne to study, she worked as an assistant teacher at the Peak School. She mainly tutored a boy who had meningitis as a newborn leaving him about two academic years behind his peers. “While it was a very challenging role, it was also incredibly rewarding when we had little breakthroughs and I felt really good leaving work every day like I had achieved something,” she recalls.

This sense of fulfilment was a light-bulb moment for her first choice of career. “That is when I decided that combining my two passions – art and kids – would be the ideal job for me. I wanted to become an art teacher.”

Early ambition shelved

With nine months to kill before starting a teaching certificate in the UK, she joined the family business “with no real role”. Her father made her start at the bottom, unpacking boxes of books, shelving them and even dusting the shelves. “He told me in order to be successful, you have to learn the A-Z of your business – so as to not be afraid to get my hands dirty. What he meant by that was, ‘Don’t think just because you are the boss’s daughter, you don’t need to do all aspects of the job!’”

Checking invoices, arranging books in beautiful displays, interacting with customers, taking orders, working behind the till, and tallying up the cash at the end of the day were all part and parcel of her learning process.

“It was hard work, but it was the experience I needed in order to gain the respect of my staff today. When I ask them to do something, they can’t say to me, ‘Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about’!” After three months, she started to enjoy working in the bookstore and dropped any idea of teaching.

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Storybook magic

It was only upon joining the family business that Mirchandani truly discovered the magic of stories and books. She has a special affinity for children’s books, saying: “I think this comes from my love of kids and my teaching experience. I have always loved the illustrations and fun rhyming text. I used to love watching children’s faces light up or hearing them giggle when we read books to them at school. How can you not love something that brings that much joy?”

As she sits in front of crammed shelves in a corner of Bookazine’s flagship store in Landmark Prince’s, she speaks enthusiastically about her role as a buyer of books, toys and gifts. “It’s like going shopping everyday….with a corporate card. I do really enjoy seeing all the new products before they hit the market; I get very excited like a kid in a toy store. I also love watching my customers’ reactions when the products hit our stores.”

Bookazine has seven shops in Hong Kong and has been in Prince’s Building for more than 30 years. The company hosts most of its book launches there and the space is also used to showcase local authors and designers.

She particularly enjoys receiving proof copies of new books ahead of their release – that feeling of having access to privileged information. “It’s like we belong to a very exclusive club; it’s also just really nice to be able to read a book right away after the publisher has just told you a story. You do not have to wait a couple of months to find out how it ends.”

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Sharing the passion

Mohan Mirchandani established Bookazine to share his love of reading with a vision to become a family-friendly community bookstore. “My father wanted it to be a place where families came and everyone left feeling happy or inspired. I think we have achieved this, or so I have been told,” says the daughter fondly.

His death aged just 58 taught her that life is very fragile and to be grateful for every day, to live for the moment and never plan too far ahead.

Customers (and daughter) know best

Mirchandani is at ease throughout the interview, articulate and well-spoken. It is no surprise that she loves interacting with customers in the store, citing it as one of her favourite aspects of the job.

Many customers have been loyal for 38 years and she feels immense gratitude for their support and invaluable feedback. Her daughter has also been a useful barometer of the latest toy trends, helping her increase the toy offering at Bookazine. “Even though she is aged 14 now, I still ask her opinion on some new trending toys and plush. She has got a real knack for knowing what will do well – except now she asks me if I will pay her!”

Family matters

Like with most family businesses, relationships can become strained. Her mother, Nisha, is the company chair, while her sister, Shonee, is also part of the management team. “Sometimes it’s really hard, and definitely in the early days we used to clash a lot,” she says candidly. A copy of Spare by Prince Harry is prominently displayed on a nearby shelf.

However, business matters now run smoothly within the family, possibly due to maturity or finding the right rhythm to make it work. “I am very close to my family; they are my pillars of support and I feel very lucky to be able to work with them.”

Reading the future

Mirchandani remains confident in the future of their business. She no longer feels that e-books pose the existential threat to traditional bookstores that appeared to be the case when they entered the market. Fortunately for them at Bookazine, the initial drop in book sales did not last long as people returned to reading in the traditional print.

“There is something quite special about flipping the page or the smell of books,” she says. “And then with some bigger online bookstores, the threat is that they can be quite competitive on pricing and things like that. But, you know, at the end of the day, I think everyone needs a good bookstore. I can’t imagine a world without bookstores.”

Photographer: Jack Law Art Director: Joseff Musa Fashion Stylist: Jhoshwa Ledesma Videographer: Jack Fontanilla Hair & Make Up: Owen Ko Venue: Bookazine, Landmark Prince’s