I lived across the street from the Eslite Dunnan in Taipei, among the world’s first 24-hour bookstores, in the summer of 2015. Back then, a close friend lived on the other side of the roundabout where Renai Road met Dunhua South Road, near the bookstore.
We would meet up quite often and work in the coffee shop/record shop in the bookstore’s basement, which also housed a stationery store, food court, and novelty shops selling stuffed animals, fossils, and high-tech knickknacks. We would browse the books in the actual bookstore on the second floor when we got bored, and then eat and drink in one of the small restaurants and bars in the narrow alleys around her place or mine. We’d complain about our love lives, gossip, and talk about activist politics.
That was around the summer of the occupation of the Ministry of Education by a group of high schoolers, who were demonstrating against textbook changes that would have taught a version of Taiwanese history that covered up the past authoritarianism of the Kuomintang. Summer 2015 was only one year after the Sunflower Movement, and the political atmosphere was still rather apocalyptic in Taiwan. These protests were kicked off after a student committed suicide.
So the Eslite Dunnan evokes a lot of memories of my turbulent activist youth. After that summer, I don’t think I was ever quite as idealistic. Not until summer 2019, with the outbreak of the protests in Hong Kong, did I find myself swept up into another massive social movement, though for years it had seemed like everywhere I traveled in the world, another protest movement was boiling up around me.
That’s why, when the Eslite Dunnan closed earlier this month, it felt like the end of a chapter for me. It had been open since 1989, just a bit longer than I’ve been alive. And so, some had more than thirty years of memories with the place.
An activist friend who became a household name here after the Sunflower Movement told me once that the Eslite Dunnan was a headquarters for the paparazzi, who camped out 24/7.
A number of celebrities were in the habit of visiting the Eslite Dunnan in the late-night hours, so as to avoid the public gaze. The paparazzi would hang out, hoping to snap them and their partners. The other place they seem to favor is the Vieshow movie theater by the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi shopping mall.
A lot of people posted stories of the Eslite Dunnan on Facebook in the days before the bookstore closed—many of them about not having the money to afford taxi fare, and staying in the Eslite Dunnan all night until the trains started. Looking back on one’s youth, that kind of struggle becomes a nostalgic memory. One music industry professional said that the Eslite Dunnan summed up their dreams of Taipei when they first moved there as a student.
Edward Yang’s A One and a Two strikes me as the best filmic depiction of that period—and it’s not surprising that Eslite makes a cameo in the film. In fact, I first watched it in an Eslite, though not the Eslite Dunnan. The crowd laughed when the bookstore appeared in the film. It was all very meta.
The thought of a bookstore that never closes is a romantic one, but I sometimes think of the Eslite chain of bookstores as something more like a shopping mall disguised as a bookstore, since it also sells stationery, furniture, clothing, and other products. In some ways, the Eslite Dunnan fulfilled a sort of middle-class desire for culture. In the 1990s and 2000s, Taipei’s middle class was craving culture at a time in which the economic boom masked a strong sense of social anomie.
Eslite played a significant role in the later formation of the “cultural creative” (文創) aesthetic, which one sees everywhere now in Taipei, with all these businesses and establishments catering to Taiwanese hipsters—so-called wenqing (文青). As with The Strand or Trader Joe’s, say, I hear that it’s long hours for meager pay working at Eslite; the underbelly of this middle-class cultural consumption is sometimes just sheer exploitation.
And sometimes, late at night, the Eslite Dunnan was simply full of drunk people who had gone out clubbing in the Xinyi District and were just waiting for the first train to get back home. There were nights when, unable to sleep, I would wander to the Eslite Dunnan around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., browse idly through the books for a while, and walk over to the nightclubs, just to see the wasteland of passed-out people, streets covered in vomit or even urine, and police trying to herd everyone home. It always looked a bit like a war zone. I’m not altogether sure why I liked to do that. Maybe I just liked the sense of contrast.
When I finish work at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and want to get out of the house and relax, most places are closed. Sometimes the world feels quite discriminatory toward extreme night owls like me. It simply isn’t profitable to keep stores and other establishments running in the late night hours, when few are awake and active, just for the sake of a few eccentrics.
It’s a day person’s world, and there are only so many places like the Eslite Dunnan in the crevices of capitalism, which usually eradicates anything that is unprofitable or inefficient. Maybe that’s why I also find late-night dive bars and 24/7 convenience store chains so magical.
Fortunately it’s been announced that Eslite will eventually be opening a new 24/7 location, converting the existing Eslite Xinyi store into a 24/7 location. It’s actually larger than the Eslite Dunnan, and I have quite a lot of memories associated with this Eslite, as well; we’ll see if it has the same atmosphere.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the Eslite Dunnan as the world’s first 24/7 bookstore, although that title is disputed. Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Washington, D.C., for example, operated 24/7 as early as the 1970’s.