Born in Hong Kong, Bleak House Books is reopening in Honeoye Falls 

click to enlarge Jenny Smith and Albert Wan at Bleak House Books in Honeoye Falls. The couple is opening the bookstore after closing an English-language bookstore in Hong Kong. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Jenny Smith and Albert Wan at Bleak House Books in Honeoye Falls. The couple is opening the bookstore after closing an English-language bookstore in Hong Kong.
When lawyer-turned-bookstore owner Albert Wan and his wife Jenny Smith, a university professor, decided to pack up their family in Hong Kong and move back to the United States in February 2022, they had no connection to the Rochester area. They didn’t know much about the region, but they did know they wanted to reopen Bleak House Books, their small English-language bookstore they started in 2017.

A little more than a year after the move to Honeoye Falls, Bleak House Books — in the center of the village on West Main Street — is poised to open in June.
click to enlarge Nick Bober, an installer with Carver Creek Woodworks, builds shelves at Bleak House Books. The store is now expected to open in June. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Nick Bober, an installer with Carver Creek Woodworks, builds shelves at Bleak House Books. The store is now expected to open in June.
On a recent visit, the shop was a work-in-progress, buzzing with contractors building wooden shelves and installing light fixtures.

Wan said being a bookstore owner is harder than it seems.

“People have dreams of wanting to own a bookshop,” he said over the din of construction noise. “But I think people don't understand how much work running a bookshop is. You know, you don't really get to sit around all day and read books.”
click to enlarge Jenny Smith inventories a recent shipment of books. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Jenny Smith inventories a recent shipment of books.
The store takes its name from the Charles Dickens novel satirizing the legal system of which Wan was once part.

“It wasn't a dream or vision that I had to own a bookshop one day in my life,” he said. “Like I said, it was just sort of more of a timing thing. It was a time and place to do it.”

Wan maintained that he doesn’t have a “grand vision” for the book store, but that he is motivated by a desire to be connected to his community.

“I decided the bookshop would be a good way to contribute to the community,” he said. “But also, it would be a good way for me to understand more of what the community needs, you know, just by virtue of having a bookshop and doing what a bookshop does — selling books, having events, you know, supporting local authors, things like that.”

While the shop was based in Hong Kong, Wan found that one thing English-language readers in the Hong Kong community needed was a curated used-book subscription service, which Bleak House provided under the name “The Pickwick Club” — another nod to Dickens. Wan said he hopes to start the service for readers in the Rochester area.
click to enlarge Artist Yerke Abuova's mural of the floor plan of the Hong Kong bookstore adorns the ceiling of Bleak House Books. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Artist Yerke Abuova's mural of the floor plan of the Hong Kong bookstore adorns the ceiling of Bleak House Books.
Wan and Smith’s decision to close the Hong Kong store and move halfway around the globe was twofold.

They viewed the Chinese government’s pandemic guidelines as too restrictive, and worried that the government’s attitudes toward free speech and censorship could impact their business.

“That’s a very difficult thing to have to process as a bookseller — whether you can sell a certain book or not, because you might get in trouble for selling it,” Wan explained. “That would keep me awake at night.”

In relocating to Honeoye Falls, the couple left behind the restrictions, but brought a little Hong Kong with them.

click to enlarge PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
In addition to selling new and used books by mainstream authors and those whose work is lesser known, the shop will have a section dedicated to writers from Hong Kong and books about that city. The work of Hong Kong artists will hang on the walls, and there will even be a mural by artist Yerke Abuova on the ceiling displaying the floor plan of the original store.

“Part of the point of the shop is to feature some of our best Hong Kong memories and to keep those alive,” Smith said. “But western New York is also really cool.”

UPDATE: The online version of this story has been changed to reflect an updated timeline for the opening of the bookstore.  The print version had stated the bookstore's prospective opening date would be in May.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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