World Book Day: A Bookstore for the Blind
SHANGHAI — From the outside, the dots on the shopfront of Backlight 226 partly resemble a braille wall. Inside, the bookstore houses stacks of several titles, written in braille, for visually impaired readers.
Backlight 226 is a rare bookstore in Shanghai — and also in China — in that it offers books by visually impaired people to those with visual impairments. Situated in the city’s leafy Nanchang Street, in proximity to other well-known bookshops and cafés, the store has been a fixture in the area since 2022, providing much-needed reading materials to the blind community.
“People may only know about the famous Helen Keller, but there are famous blind Chinese writers as well,” Han Ying, the manager of Backlight 226, told Sixth Tone, referring to the American author and activist who lost her sight and hearing at an early age.
Han partially lost her vision after an accident aged 21 and became completely blind five years later. She said she has since had to give up teaching calligraphy, and the way she reads was also affected.
Now, aged 43, she said she relies on special apps designed for the visually impaired and spends most of her time at the bookstore. There, she promotes reading among visually impaired people, and the bookstore is equipped with equipment that allows the visually impaired to read more comfortably.
“Backlight 226 is a start,” Han said. “There will definitely be more like it across the country so that we can make the public know more about special groups and their world.”
China is home to 17 million visually impaired people, who often face barriers entering the workforce and even colleges due to a lack of braille exam papers. China only has one braille press, and there were 959 braille libraries nationwide as of 2017, but many people aren’t aware of them.
On a recent Sunday, Backlight 226 was filled with curious visitors wanting to know more about the store. Affiliated with the state-run Xinhua Bookstore, the space is stacked with novels written by visually impaired authors, such as Li Donghui and Wu Keyan. Meanwhile, some books are just meant to be touched and smelled.
Aesthetically, the bookstore was equipped with corridors and walls with light-transmitting dots, partially to simulate braille alphabets. It was partially designed to let light in because “blind friends are eager for light,” according to Han.
For reading enthusiasts like a 21-year-old student surnamed Huang, the bookstore is one of the few places he can come to read and listen to audiobooks. Huang said he lost his eyesight in 2021 after it started deteriorating over the years and soon fell into depression.
“I found Backlight 226 bookstore in my darkest moment and the staff helped me to step out of this shadow gradually,” he told Sixth Tone. “The bookstore is a window for us to know about the world and for able people to know about the world we blind are in. It helps erase the stigma imposed on us. The bookstore cares about us.”
Han, the bookstore’s manager, agreed. She said she found herself in a dark space mentally and the bookstore helped her to regain her love for reading.
“Blindness is a process that slowly torments you,” said Han. “I gradually forgot about the idea of a bookstore. A bookstore designed for the blind was a very fresh and cheerful idea to many visually impaired people like me.”
But Backlight 226 is more than just a bookstore. The store also exhibits and sells handicrafts made by people with disabilities, including traditional Chinese realistic paintings, scented candles, bamboo weavings, and even finely crafted Peking Opera dolls.
Han said that the bookstore offers a platform for visually impaired people to showcase their skills and sell their handmade products. She added that it’s also an inclusive space for people to learn about each other.
“You can’t just say it’s a blind person’s bookstore, which sounds like you are excluding able-bodied people from entering our bookstore,” Han said. “A lot of elements in this store are related to blindness or related to people with disabilities. We welcome everyone here.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: An exterior view of Backlight 226, Dec. 4, 2022. VCG)