Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Library Bar

I have once before mentioned on here that one of my favourite hangouts of the past couple of years has been a bar in central Beijing that is also a library (readers with over-active memories may recall that it prompted a comment from a random visitor to the effect that surely the books were at risk of suffering drink-related accidents, viz. being covered in vomit). Indeed, my young companion The Choirboy has taken to calling the place The Library Bar, which is admirably descriptive. Its actual name, however, is The Bookworm - though most of us regulars refer to it more succinctly as The Worm.

It has been going for several years now, but originally the project was just to establish a lending library of secondhand books for the expat community, and it was hosted by a succession of independent bars/restaurants. It changed location a few times; sometimes, I think, losing a significant number of its books along the way (its last partner, re-opened in new premises after a chai [demolition order] on the old, has now mysteriously established a library of its own). However, a while back - in the summer of '05, I think it must have been - The Worm finally established a venue of its very own. And it's a lovely space, large and airy, with a high, high ceiling and glass roof in the main bar area; and a pleasant if somewhat windswept roof garden for the nice days of early summer. A great location, too: right in the middle of the Sanlitun bar district, mid-way between the 2nd and 3rd Ringroads on the fashionable east side of town.

The Worm's formidable proprietress, a British long-time expat called Alex Pearson, claims (just a tad disingenuously, I'm sure) that she's really not interested in the F&B business but is driven by the ideal of creating the sense of a literary salon, a little haven of calm for the beleaguered intellectual in the heart of this hectic, grimy, go-getting city. In addition to the library, it hosts a poetry group, a couple of book clubs, the occasional wine tasting, and frequent book launches and speaker meetings. In the past couple of weeks I have been to see the hip and kooky young German forensic pathologist Mark Benecke (he has a great - not-for-the-squeamish - website) explaining why some people believe in vampires, American amateur 'Buddhologist' Bill Porter recounting stories of his investigations into the continuing hermit tradition in Chinese Buddhism and Daoism, amusing Aussie poet Peter Bukowski (inspired by but no relation to Charles) reading some of his work, and genial Irish raconteur Paddy Barry describing his epic sailing trip around the North Pole (the first ever westerly circumnavigation within the Arctic Circle). Tons of fun.

Central location, cosy environment, and good wi-fi facilities ensure that it is a favourite spot for many people to work, and particularly for Beijing's legion of foreign journalists. And, all in all, it is a great place for randomly bumping into weird and fascinating people, as well as for more targeted networking, or for just running into old friends by happy chance. It's quite uncanny, actually: I have scarcely ever been in there without bumping into at least one person I know; and if there's a popular event on, it's quite likely there'll be at least half a dozen familiar faces I have to chat to. (In fact, sometimes, when I'm in one of my unsociable moods, this becomes a reason for avoiding the place!)

Also, I fear The Worm may be my last chance for meeting a romantic partner, since it boasts such a high traffic of gorgeous foreign women, many of whom are young and single... or not-too-old, and 'available'. (I continue to be stubbornly averse to the local girls, which severely limits my opportunities to find a girlfriend.) Of course, it's a little style-cramping that the place is almost always full of friends, exes, and thwarted crushes of the past....

Yet aside from the social opportunities, the eye-candy, the comfort of the thousands of books lining the walls, the great events, the eye-candy.... it's also a great bar: the decor and atmosphere are a little too bright and swish and modern for my taste, but it's very comfortable, the staff are nice, and the prices are not too high. And they do have by far the best selection of single malts in town. (And back in their first year, they were only about $5 for a hugely generous free-pour - probably a double-measure, at least; quite a bargain! Now, alas, the prices have crept up a bit - they were probably losing money before.) Now that the dry and dusty autumn weather is bringing the annual return of the dreaded 'Beijing Throat', regular doses of this delicious medicine become obligatory.

Enough gushing, Froog! Very well, in the interests of a balanced review, I will say that I find the food is (though alleged by some to have improved a lot recently) disappointing and best avoided: it's overpriced and wildly inconsistent. Also, promptings of the libido aside, I've always been rather wary of places that attract such a predominantly - almost exclusively - expat crowd; I didn't come to live in a foreign country so that I could spend all my time in a protective bubble of pretend-home, insulated from anything Chinese. And these days, the place is in danger of getting just too darned popular for its own good - I looked in there last Sunday afternoon, hoping for a quiet drink and an opportunity to get stuck into my new novel; but it was absolutely heaved out, and far too noisy for me to read there; so I had to head elsewhere instead. Boo!

So, it's not all wonderful with The Bookworm. But I do rather like the place. Hell, I'd be lost without it!

And this, by the way, if you take Froogville and the Barstool together, was my 1,000th post. Time for a celebratory beer, I think....


Anonymous said...

that place is almost always noisy and crowded.

it's many favourable qualities aside, i find the interior cold (I'm not talking about temperature), the crowd too big, the noise level too high for it to ever really become a favorite of mine. Not that it's going to stop me from going there -- like I said, it has it's favourable qualities.

also, I did enjoy some great rooftop lunches during some of our rare pleasant weather days.

Froog said...

Yep, something not-quite-right about the decor, and the frequent crowdiness are the major turn-offs.

If you can catch it on a slow afternoon or early evening, it can be a haven of calm.

And it's a great place to fill in time, if you're waiting to do something else, or being kept waiting by someone - you don't even have to bring your own book.

The British Cowboy said...

This post in some ways reminds me of a long running argument I am having with a good friend of mine, who lives on my new block. He is in many ways a kindred spirit of yours, Froog, and I think you would get on well.

Anyway, we boht drink in the local boozer way too often, and he is quite the Casanova there. My argument is always that one should keep one's local free of romantic involvements. His is that it is a viable source of talent. And he is right in many ways, but I personally chose to avoid the possibility of scenes and style cramping. Also, to me, a good bar is harder to find - I never want to be in the position of an ugly breakup forcing me away from my local.

Froog said...

Nice of you to compare me to your neighbourhood Casanova, Cowboy, although I doubt if it is really apposite.

No danger of 'shitting-on-own-doorstep' complications as such, since the Worm is: a) not my 'local'; and b) has such a high volume (and high turnover) of 'regulars' that no-one can really stake an individual territorial claim.

Having said that, I do bump into soul-shredding 'lost love' The Poet there once in a while, and long-time thwarted lust The Trivia Queen on a pretty regularly basis. My suffering is always very private and dignified and under-control, though. I may not be very good at getting myself into relationships in the first place, but I am extremely good at extricating myself from them without recriminations or bitterness.

And if the dear old Worm did ever become an emotional-fallout zone.... well, it is eminently expendable as a boozer; but I'd miss it as a social and cultural hub.