Tokyo’s bookworms find readers’ paradise in used bookstores

Stores with knowledge of foreign titles remain rare in the capital, but expats can still rely on two to meet their diverse literary needs

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

First of two parts

In these fast times of visual candy, instant gratification and attention-deficit disorder, how can book lovers pursue their “slow food for thought” pleasure while avoiding both Amazon.com and the impersonal big chain bookstores? For foreigners who live in or around Tokyo and are used to visiting small independent shops back home, the go-to places have traditionally been the English-language used bookstores.

Due to many factors, including economic difficulties and the shifting nature of the expat market, these shops all too often survive only a few years before disappearing and being replaced by other stores. People who have lived here for 15 to 20 years will remember the tiny Dragon’s Egg in Asagaya and the sorely missed Caravan Books, which occupied a two-story house on the west side of Ikebukuro Station. Both of them have closed, even though the folks who used to run the latter have since gone online and opened Infinity Books Japan.

Bondi Books, a similar store that was in the city of Musashino but moved to a smaller space in the bookstore-laden Jinbocho district in February 2008, is now focusing only on rare and antiquarian books.

About the only two places in central Tokyo that can satisfy people’s hunger for quality reading at affordable prices remain Good Day Books in Ebisu and The Blue Parrot in Takadanobaba. Though similar in many respects, a visit to these shops highlights several little differences that contribute to their unique and distinctive atmosphere.

On one side, Good Day Books, with its neat shelves and clear labels and directions, reminds us of a well-used library. The Blue Parrot, on the other hand, is a funkier, apparently more chaotic environment that goes down well with the relatively younger clientele.

Taeko Kobayashi and her American husband, Stephen Kott, have been running Good Day Books for almost 20 years. Even today the shop stands in the same place near Ebisu Station where Kobayashi started back in 1992, and is open seven days a week. They stock more than 40,000 different titles, 95 percent of which are used books.

“We are a little overwhelmed at the moment,” says Kott. Most new books are about Japan, with the usual suspects (e.g. Donald Richie and Robert Whiting) well represented on the store’s shelves. “Of course we try to carry a lot of the Kodansha International titles,” Kott adds, “and I hope they will keep many of them in print, even though the company was closed this year.”

Overall, most used books in stock are fiction. “Many bookstores abroad, like in New York or Los Angeles, mostly carry nonfiction,” Kott says, “but here because of the expat community we have to carry a lot of genre fiction.” Indeed, a sizeable part of the shelf space is devoted to mystery, science fiction and fantasy.

Kott used to work in a law firm in Tokyo, but left it in order to try something new. “I got fed up,” he says. “I joined Good Day Books in 1999, filling in here at first.”

Almost from the start he decided to try new ideas to introduce books to potential readers. “There’s a little town in California, near where I used to live. It’s so small they don’t even have traffic lights, but they have a book shop and a lot of the local people feel very strongly about keeping the place open because the community would be poorer if that shop disappeared.

“That’s what we decided to create when we started our author talks and book discussion clubs. Authors these days have to be much more active than before in publicizing their books. The authors coming here appreciate the venue and the opportunity we provide to get their works known.”

The Blue Parrot first opened in 2002 in Aoyama, but in April 2004 founder and owner Koichi Tanaka decided to move the store to a larger space near Takadanobaba Station. “This is a much more convenient place,” says manager Mayumi Omiya, “as we are at a short walking distance from the JR, Seibu and Tokyo Metro lines. We currently have more than 30,000 books — including those we keep in our warehouse in Saitama — 60 percent of which are nonfiction.”

The Blue Parrot sells used CDs and DVDs as well, but is currently trying to phase them out. “They don’t sell as well as before,” Omiya says. “Now everybody can watch movies and listen to music for free on the Internet. In any case we want to create more space for the books because at the end of the day we are a bookstore and people come for our reading materials.”

Omiya started as a part-time employee, but became the store manager after the move to Takadanobaba.

Through the years The Blue Parrot has had an ever-changing rotation of part-time staff — among them English teachers and photographers — but now the only person besides Omiya is American-born Marianna Maruyama, a soft-spoken lover of classic literature (Saul Bellow, D.H. Lawrence, Jorge Luis Borges) who joined three years ago.

“People are always inquiring about working here,” says Omiya. “I have a long list of hopefuls. Many of them, though, don’t realize you have to learn many different things in order to work at an independent bookstore. Marianna in this respect is doing a great job. I don’t know what I would do without her.”

For many years the store stayed open seven days a week, but after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake they decided to close on Tuesdays. “Theoretically our closing time is 8 p.m. but many customers come late in the evening and we often stay open until 9.”

One of the challenges for both staff and customers of The Blue Parrot is finding the books one is looking for. “Lack of space is a constant problem,” Maruyama confirms. “As you can see we often have to shelve the books in double rows. Actually for some people this is one of the charming points about this place: Looking for a book becomes a sort of treasure hunt. After the earthquake we stayed closed for two weeks to clean up the mess and we found some good books that had been hiding somewhere.”

One of the ways in which Omiya tries to control the mass of books in the store is by holding a big bargain sale twice a year. “We don’t have a specific season for those, every year we schedule them at different time, usually when we are overwhelmed by too many books and we have to get rid of them quickly. We also respond to our customers’ requests.”

Good Day Books’ Kott agrees about the chronic lack of space. “As you can see we have books all over the place, even on the floor. A bookstore in New York has more meters of shelf space. Take Strand on Broadway just off Union Square in Lower Manhattan, which is almost certainly the largest used bookstore in the world. They advertise ’18 miles of books.’

“Obviously we can’t compete in those terms, but our books-per-meter ratio is pretty good, and we have a good selection.”

One difference between the two bookstores is the people who regularly browse their shelves. Good Day Books’ traditional customers are those who work in the area — a commercial district with several offices — or frequent the nearby Ebisu Garden Place.

Takadanobaba, on the other hand, has always been a good place to find second-hand products and other good stuff at bargain prices. “In general our customers are mostly young people,” Omiya says, “many of whom study at nearby universities. That’s why we are constantly asked about such books as J.D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and the works by Francis Scott Fitzgerald.

“Their teachers often assign them a particular book to read, and they come in droves to buy the same title, which of course puts us in a difficult situation. This year, for example, a law teacher assigned his students a book by John Grisham, who is famous for his legal thrillers. Of course Grisham’s best-sellers always sell very well but it’s difficult to have many copies of the same title in stock.”

One thing Kott and Omiya agree upon is the added value their stores offer to the people who visit them. “We offer an important service,” Kott says. “That is our knowledge about books. We actually get people coming in and asking for recommendations on what to buy. If you go to a big store like Kinokuniya or Maruzen, few people even know where the books are, let alone what they are about. Bookstore chains are even worse. The books are often put on the shelves haphazardly. If you look for something in particular, it’s a real nightmare.”

Book-Off, the biggest national used-books chains, has put a lot of pressure on small individually run shops. “Their cheapest books are priced around ¥200,” Kobayashi says, “so they obviously attract people looking for a bargain. But they know nothing about books, not even their real value. They sell books the same way they could sell soap. It’s like a supermarket.”

For more information about Good Day Books, visit www.gooddaybooks.com, and about The Blue Parrot www.blueparrottokyo.com.