In front of Li Min Books in Los Angeles' Chinatown, there's the familiar clink of coins dropping into a nearby cardboard box as passers-by pause to buy copies of Chinese-language newspapers.
It's early afternoon, and the stacks of the three major dailies, from San Francisco, Monterey Park and Hong Kong, are getting thin. A few old men are smoking cigarettes and laughing outside the store, a one-story building on North Hill Street near bakeries, restaurants and souvenir shops.
Inside, customers crowd around the "new arrivals" section, leafing through biographies of Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Zeyang displayed side by side. Nearby, only two copies are left of a small book with a slick black cover, "Escape From Beijing," a collection of interviews with student leaders of this summer's pro-democracy movement.
"We have to order more," said store manager Alice Sun.
A few blocks away in the China Book Store on Broadway, salesperson William Chan has another opinion about what Chinese here want most to read.
"Fashion magazines--four kinds, from Hong Kong," he said, pointing to photographs of fresh-faced girls wearing Western-style clothes. "And Hong Kong movie magazines too."
Whether they specialize in Hong Kong teen magazines, Confucian literature or modern Taiwanese novels, Chinese bookstores in Los Angeles and Monterey Park are trying to shorten the distance between Chinese here and their native countries.
Perhaps more importantly, they bridge the gap between Chinese of different nationalities.
Most of the books and magazines at Li Min are from the People's Republic of China. In fact, with 15,000 book titles in the Chinese language, 2,300 in English and 200 magazines, the store claims to have Southern California's largest selection of mainland literature.
That especially interests Chinese from Taiwan, who can find titles that once were banned in their home country, said Sun, who was editor of a Shanghai literary magazine before she moved to Los Angeles in 1982.
She scanned the literature section and pulled out a copy of "Jia Chun Qiu," a novel written by Ba Jin, who was critical of the Kuomintang Party while it held power in mainland China during the 1930s. "Many young people from Taiwan couldn't read his books until they came here," she said.
But Chinese bookstores aren't only for the serious-minded historian. At Evergreen Publishing and Stationery in Monterey Park, manager Doris Yu guided a visitor to an aisle full of Harlequin romances, translated into Chinese, and dozens of books by a popular Taiwanese female author, Qiong Yao. A few of the titles were, "Fire Bird," "I am a Piece of Cloud," and "The Light of Last Night."
"She's considered to be, how should I say, the Danielle Steele of Taiwan," Yu said, giggling.
On another shelf was a selection that looked like the inside of a high school senior's book bag: paperbacks of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "The Scarlet Letter," "Brave New World" and several Charles Dickens novels, all in Chinese.
There's also the Chinese version of "Who's Who"--a large hardbound book called "Chinese Businesses in America," which is published in Los Angeles and features one-page profiles of the top 100 business executives. The most recent edition includes Evergreen's founder and owner, Bing Liu, and tells of his rapidly expanding book business, now a major distributor to Chinese bookstores and libraries all over the United States.
Down the street at International Books Store on West Garvey Avenue, salesperson Tony Wang pointed to the front display case, which is full of "survival" literature: resume writing guides with samples in Chinese and English on the opposite page, U.S. News & World Report magazine's "America's Best Colleges," and a book called "How to Make a Million Dollars in American Real Estate."
There's also "Americanisms They Don't Teach You at School," a small booklet illustrated with cartoon characters and divided into chapters headed "Taboo ethnic names," "Rude language," and "Swearing, blasphemy and profanity." Boldfaced phrases are followed by literal translations and explanations in Chinese.
"These are the most popular," Wang said. Behind her, an elderly Chinese man walked in and picked up a copy of Da Gong Bao, the Chinese daily from Hong Kong.
"How much?" the man asked in Mandarin.
"Thirty cents," Wang answered, as the man fished for change in his pocket and dropped three coins into a cardboard box near the front door.