A Beijing bookstore where George Washington is on the shelves

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After the brutal suppression of China’s 1989 democracy movement, Liu Suli, a student leader who had narrowly escaped being gunned down near Tiananmen Square, recalled a boyhood dream as he brooded in his prison cell.

If he owned a bookstore, he had mused at the age of 7, he wouldn’t have to spend money on books. From behind bars, and with his entrepreneurial drive still intact, he saw his dream in a different light. A bookstore might be a more plausible way to pursue the freedom of ideas that he and hundreds of thousands of others had failed to win with public protest.

He got out of jail fairly quickly. The authorities lightened up a bit. He opened a bookstore and ordered an eclectic range of volumes that leaned toward philosophy, history, political science and an ample dose of Western thought.

And now the All Sages Bookstore, a haven of precisely arranged shelves and display tables, thrives on the low-rent second floor of a nondescript building near Peking University.

A survivor of Beijing’s ferocious property market — it has moved three times since 1993 — and the government’s extremely tight censorship in the era of President Xi Jinping’s rule, the store represents an independent political spirit in an authoritarian one-party state.

A large image of Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and freethinker, stands out among a galaxy of literary posters lining the wall of the entry staircase, a taste of what’s to come.

“China is not a liberal society, it’s not a free country,” Mr. Liu said, sitting in a quiet corner of the Thinkers Cafe, a mellow hangout within the store that meanders along a side corridor to a small back room furnished with antique Chinese furniture.

“But the bookstore is a way to express our longing for freedom and our hope for the establishment of a free society,” he said.

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