The Bleak House Books family at our old Hong Kong bookshop
(L to R: Albert, Aggie, Ysabelle, Angel, Maylene, Ida, Jenny, Charlie)
Bleak House Books is a family-owned and operated independent bookshop that specializes in quality new and used books.
It was founded in Hong Kong in 2017, and was then only one of a handful of bookshops that focused on English-language literature in Hong Kong.
Our family loved the bookshop in Hong Kong very much. It was bright, spacious (at least by Hong Kong standards), and nestled on the 27th floor of a high-rise office building overlooking Kowloon. It had cool, vintage-looking bookshelves stocked with books of all genres, ages and origins. More than that though, it had the best community of booklovers, friends and neighbors an indie bookseller could ever hope for.
The media often referred to our Hong Kong bookshop as a “literary oasis” or "literary outpost" but to the people who worked at and frequented the bookshop, it was more like one’s home away from home. A place that felt familiar, safe and warm.
Bleak House Books in San Po Kong, Hong Kong (Jan. 5, 2021)
During our time in Hong Kong we did what most indie bookshops do. We bought and sold lots of books, online and in-person. We hosted book talks and author signings. We supported and promoted local authors. We ventured outside the bookshop to sell our books and wares at street markets and schools. We rented out our bookshop for film shoots and musical performances. We even curated a 1,000-plus title private library and helped arrange for a surprise marriage proposal to take place at the bookshop.
Albert and Jenny with Rachel and Ella,
our awesome first ever shop manager and her lovely dog,
working a street market in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong (11 Nov. 2018)
Suffice it to say that the bookshop was the source of many fond and happy memories for its staff and also for the community that grew up alongside the bookshop.
But there were plenty of dark and unsettling times too. Not soon after we opened our bookshop, Hong Kong was plunged into a period of unprecedented turmoil and civil strife. The government tried to enact a law that would give it the ability to extradite Hongkongers to mainland China for certain criminal offenses. The vast majority of Hongkongers opposed this law as did many professional and political groups in Hong Kong. For a long time, however, the government ignored their calls to shelve the law.
As you can imagine this led to large-scale protests, the kind Hong Kong, with its own very vibrant public protest culture, had never before seen in its history. One notable protest march was attended by an estimated two million people or one-third of the entire population of Hong Kong. As protests grew in number and intensity and violence, so too did the number of demands made by Hongkongers vis-a-vis the government.
The million person protest march in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong (Aug. 18, 2019)
The government continued to stonewall and prevaricate, however. The police force became the public face of the government on all things protest-related. The once sparsely populated jails in Hong Kong started filling up with protestors, many of whom were arrested on dubious charges. Tear gas canisters rained down in nearly every district in Hong Kong during all hours of the day. Hong Kong was in a state of chaos and the government was in hiding.
Then came COVID and the draconian, made-in-China National Security Law that gave the government near unlimited power to harass and jail anyone, anywhere for crimes like subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign agents. Almost overnight, Hong Kong was transformed into another mainland Chinese city. Public gatherings and elections were banned. Dozens of opposition figures, lawyers and journalists were arrested. ‘Sensitive’ books were pulled from library shelves, and movies censored. An unprecedented chilling effect seeped into every aspect of life for those living and working in the place that was once known as “Asia’s World City”.
A photo taken in Bleak House Books in Hong Kong on 6 Jan. 2021,
the day when dozens of opposition lawmakers were arrested
under the National Security Law
It was against this backdrop that our family announced on August 28, 2021, that we would be closing the bookshop and leaving Hong Kong. It was a terribly difficult and heartbreaking decision, and the day on which we made the announcement will go down as the saddest day in the life of this writer.
To some, the announcement came as a surprise, especially since the bookshop was doing better than ever before. We were stocking and selling books at a steady clip. And almost every booklover in Hong Kong, and some abroad as well, knew of and frequented our bookshop.
But for others, our decision wasn’t a surprise at all. Many Hongkongers, especially those with young children, were already leaving en masse. The city they knew and loved no longer felt like home to them.
Our 'Last Memo' announcing the closure of Bleak House Books
in Hong Kong (29 Aug. 2021)
After we announced the closing of Bleak House Books in Hong Kong, however, something strange and magical happened. Our bookshop was flooded with messages of support from readers near and far. Not only that, people showed up. Lots of people. They showed up to bid us farewell; to share one last beer with Ye Olde Bookseller, the perpetually grumpy owner of Bleak House Books; to buy some books; to take in the view one last time from the world’s only bookshop on the 27th floor; and to grieve.
Bleak House Books in Hong Kong, 5 days until its last day (10 Oct. 2021)
Our supporters from overseas were not to be outdone, however. They flooded our online store with orders from all four corners of the earth. Our hardworking staff at the bookshop worked double, triple overtime to fulfill these last-minute online orders while tending to the day-to-day operations of the bookshop itself. And they were successful in getting every single online order out to our overseas readers because they are book people, and book people are awesome.
Angel and Maylene, our awesome BHB staff, packing last-minute online orders on 1 Sept. 2021
Jenny, the lovely wife of this writer and the other half of BHB, organizing
our 'pay what you want' bargain bins on 5 Sept. 2021
On a rainy night in October 15, 2021, Bleak House Books sold its last book and closed its doors for good after four very happy and eventful years in Hong Kong.
(For more press coverage of the bookshop's closing, see these pieces in Hong Kong Free Press, Initium Media 端傳媒, 獨立媒體 inmediahk.net, Ming Pao Weekly (print), Ming Pao Weekly (video), RTHK (radio), gal-dem).
'With one breath the lamp is lit. Always remember
where there is light, there is hope.'
A New Chapter for Bleak House Books Begins
But that wasn’t the end of our beloved bookshop.
One year later, our family announced that we would be reopening Bleak House Books in the village of Honeoye Falls in Western New York, our new home. Unlike our old bookshop in Hong Kong, the space we found for the new bookshop was straight out of a Edward Hopper painting. Large display windows. Wood moulding. Cast iron columns. Hardwood floors. It was also twice the size of our old space.
Jenny, Ida, Charlie and Albert in front of the new home
for Bleak House Books in Honeoye Falls, NY
(28 Aug. 2022)
We knew we had found the perfect space for Bleak House Books 2.0, but we had our work cut out for us if we were going to turn it into a bookshop that would be bigger and better than our old one. And we definitely couldn’t have done it all ourselves. Fortunately, we found and hired some wonderful professionals and tradespeople to help us with this project.
We asked Eunice Seng from SKEW Collaborative, a talented architect and good friend of the bookshop from our days in Hong Kong, to be the creative mind behind the design and architecture for the new bookshop. She and her partner Darren Zhou worked hard to design a bookshop that captured the essence of our new space and home in Honeoye Falls but also contained elements of our former home and bookshop in Hong Kong. A raised island would be built in the middle of our new bookshop to serve as an employee workspace but also to symbolize the remnants of our now-shuttered Hong Kong space. Custom-made bookshelves resembling our bookshelves of yore would line the walls of our new space .
A couple snippets from the many architectural plans and drawings
from SKEW Collaborative for the new Bleak House Books
Once the design was done, we sought out and found local tradespeople to make the design a reality. The work was considerable. A drop ceiling and dozens of old, defunct light fixtures had to be demolished, the electrical system completely re-wired and upgraded, new ceilings and rooms framed out and painted, dozens of new lighting fixtures laid out and installed. A lot of this heavy lifting was done by Rochester-based Building Services Group (BSG), our general contractor. And they did an awesome job.
Our new bookshop space in Honeoye Falls, NY as of 5 Sept. 2022 . . .
. . . and on 13 Feb. 2023
But what about all our bookshelves and funky, custom millwork? Enter Carver Creek Woodworks. Based a stone’s throw away in nearby Bloomfield, the craftspeople at Carver Creek took on all our millwork needs and then some. A full length, 12-foot high, 52-foot long bookcase with a rolling ladder? No problem! Custom, wrap-around cabinetry and shelving for our raised island? Okay!
Our full-length bookcase by Carver Creek is completed
on 11 Apr. 2023
The team at Carver Creek (from L to R: T.R., Jake, Allyson, Nick, and Wade)
We were also lucky to work with a few amazing artists on some original art pieces for the bookshop inspired by our time in Hong Kong. At the front of the bookshop is now a brand new neon sign that bears the name of our bookshop in both English and Chinese, designed in Hong Kong by the very special @streetsignhk, and made in Kingston, New York by the talented benders at Lite Brite Neon. We commissioned the brave and beautiful Yerke Abuova (Cornell University '23) to install a ceiling mural above our raised platform area (video footage here and here) that depicts the layout and decorative details of our old 27th floor Hong Kong bookshop. And then there are some lovely prints and paintings by some familiar faces like Don Mak and Wai Wai, our good friends from our days in Hong Kong, whose works we have featured many times before at our old bookshop.
Our Bleak House Books neon sign, the first night
after it was installed (6 Jun. 2023)
Yerke, our ceiling mural artist, working on a 10 foot
scaffold at the bookshop (7 May 2023)
'Reading Below the Lion Rock'
by Hong Kong artist, Don Mak
'Bleak House Books in Hong Kong'
by Hong Kong artist, Wai Wai
After about half a year of planning, designing, building, and sometimes endless detail work, the bookshop was done, and we were ready to open our doors to our lovely community. On June 24, 2023, the bookshop had its 'soft opening' and it was a great success.
At the time of this writing, Bleak House Books has been open for just over two months. We’ve received visitors from near and far. Many people who come thank us. They thank us for ‘taking a chance on a small village like Honeoye Falls’; for ‘having such an amazing collection’; or for just ‘being here’.
But it is not me or my family they should be thanking. The thanks should, instead, go to every single person who has stepped foot in and supported our bookshop of old. The ones who bought our books, sold or donated books to us, spent a few minutes to shoot the breeze with our awesome bookshop staff, collaborated with our bookshop on various events and projects, and the occasional few who came by with some cold beers for yours truly. It is through their selflessness and spirit that our family was able to muster the energy and will power to rebuild Bleak House Books from scratch.
And so the story of our beloved bookshop and its wonderful community continues. What might the next chapter bring? Time will tell.
June 23, 2023 at 11:53 pm. Jenny and Albert the night before
the soft opening of the new Bleak House Books
in Honeoye Falls, NY