Small bookstores nearing their final chapter?


The ever-present convenience store, large-scale chain bookstores, recycling and Internet shopping are a sign of the times.

Small bookstores, however, read this sign as saying dead end — for them. And many have dropped from the radar.

In the five years through May 1, the number of bookstores in Japan fell by 4,158 to 18,156, according to Arumedia, a Tokyo-based publisher that tracks the data.

The majority of those that failed were mom-and-pop shops that had long served their adjacent communities. Such stores are now competing with a growing web of convenience stores for their major revenue source: magazines and comics.

Meanwhile, the rise of Internet bookstores such as is eating into profits at established chains, which are fighting back by thinking bigger.

“For existing large outlets, their only advantage over Internet retailers is that customers can look at their products before buying,” Arumedia President Mikio Kagami said. “So they are trying to display as many copies as possible.”

This fall, two mega-bookstores are opening in central Tokyo, fueling the already fierce battle for survival. Major bookstore chain Maruzen Co. on Tuesday moved its main store from Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district to Marunouchi, right outside JR Tokyo Station.

The 5,800-sq.-meter four-story outlet, part of a new hotel/shopping complex, holds 1.2 million magazines and books. Junkudo Co., which already has the nation’s biggest bookstore in terms of floor size, in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, will open another mega-outlet in the Shinjuku district in late October.

Maruzen’s move is worrying small Marunouchi-area bookstores. Makoto Watanabe, second-generation owner of Watanabe Shoten, located in the basement of an office building, complained that mega-stores stack up so many copies of the same books that even publishers are running out of stock.

Maruzen may sell excess copies to smaller shops in Chiyoda and Chuo wards at a discount in case they can’t get books directly from publishers, Watanabe said, adding: “But we’ve got pride too. We don’t want to rely on Maruzen for all orders from customers.”

Can small shops win this David vs. Goliath battle? Watanabe said he can only do his best, by selecting books that best match his clientele and trying to deliver as quickly as possible. Even then, the future remains murky.

“We don’t know if we can really survive,” Watanabe said.