Used bookstores turn to Internet sales for a lift in turbulent times

Two English-language outlets in Tokyo pull out all the stops to lure, retain valued customers after devastating earthquake

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

Last of two parts

When talking about books, there are not as many polarizing issues as the contrast between chain bookstores and independent booksellers. Many people blame the former group for the gradual disappearance of the latter.

Without demonizing the big chains, independent shops have traditionally been an important part of the local community. This is particularly true for the English-language used bookstores which for many years have been serving the expatriate community across Japan. The two only surviving shops in Tokyo — Good Day Books and The Blue Parrot — are devoted to their mission and plan to stay around for many more years to come.

This said, 2011 has been a particularly tough year, with a steadily worsening economic situation and the repercussions of a devastating earthquake hitting the expat community hard.

“It was a real hard time for everybody,” said Blue Parrot employee Marianna Maruyama. “Especially after the summer holidays, things have mostly returned as before but we certainly have noticed a decrease in the number of customers.”

Maruyama was the only employee at the store when the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake hit on March 11.

“It was scary and a little surreal at the same time because I rushed out and on the stairs I met a British woman who wanted to buy some books no matter what. I was very worried about coming back in but she said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come with you.’ Apparently she hadn’t even realized a big quake had happened!”

Since then Maruyama always keeps under the counter a white hard hat a customer gave her.

“You never know, especially being literally surrounded by all these books,” she said.

It’s not only the earthquake, though, that has affected business negatively in the past few years.

“These are challenging times,” says Good Day Books co-owner Stephen Kott. “For one thing, the yen is so high it pushes down the price of new English books. When I first started, mass market titles used to sell for ¥2,000, while used books where priced around ¥500, so there was a huge gap. Now that gap is much smaller.

“Also, more and more people buy books online. Then you have the Lehman shock and the nuclear disaster, which have driven many expats away. To give you a measure of the disappearance of foreigners, every two weeks we receive 50 copies of the Metropolis magazine and after 10 days or so none of these copies remain. On March 11, we received 50 copies and two weeks later 42 copies remained. All these problems have come along at the same time, and have caused a sort of perfect storm.”

According to Kott, over the course of the past 10 years customer traffic has decreased by about one-third.

“During lunch time, for instance, many businessmen used to come. They would hang around, browse our books, but now many companies have moved out.”

The Blue Parrot’s manager, Mayumi Omiya, echoes Kott’s concerns. “Both the number of customers and total sales have gone down,” she says, “especially when compared to the first three to four years after moving here. At the time so many people visited the shop every day, they had to line up at the counter. I’d say we have half that number now.”

To counter the negative trend, both stores have decided to join the Internet revolution. Omiya showed many books on the shelves sporting a red code number. “These are the books we have uploaded on Amazon so far,” she says. “We started last year, but it’s really picked up steam this year. At first we didn’t want to sell the cheaper titles this way, so we only uploaded books which cost at least ¥5,000, but then someone suggested that we put everything online so I’ve been spending most of the time putting our books on sale online. Right now we have about 4,000 books available through Amazon.”

According to Maruyama, the move has been a big boost for sales.

“English language textbooks have been a big hit, especially among people who live in small towns and areas without decent bookstores, for whom buying online is by far the best option,” she said.

Kott was a little reluctant to go online, but now is happy about the results. “Maybe it’s a generation thing, but I prefer to visit a shop, talk to the people, touch the books, instead of doing an online search. But I recognize that other people like it this way, so we have signed up with Amazon. It’s actually turning out better than we thought, especially with Japanese customers.”

“People still don’t know about our new online service,” says Kott’s wife, Taeko Kobayashi, “so they use Amazon, but ordering directly from us is actually cheaper, especially if you buy several books, because the shipping costs are always ¥500 no matter how many books you buy, while with Amazon they charge you ¥250 for each book you order.”

Another way in which Good Day Books is drawing readers to the shop is through their author talks and book discussion clubs.

“Writers come here and talk about their latest book,” says Kott. “Ten to 15 people show up on average, but some heavyweights attract many more people and seats sell out very quickly. This is a small shop and we don’t have a lot of space, so people who are interested in joining these talks should be aware that they need to reserve a seat well in advance. If someone shows up at the last moment, chances are we can’t let them in, which is something we really hate to do, but unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about it.”

This year a number of problems have prevented Good Day Books from keeping their monthly schedule.

“Not only did many people leave after the nuclear accident, but Kodansha pulled the plug on their English-language department, which meant an invaluable source of interesting books about Japan suddenly disappeared.

“You also have to consider that Japan as a subject for books is not as hot as it used to be. Ten or 20 years ago Japan was still the future, and bundles of books were coming out. But now China is the future.”

Being a book lover himself, Kott actively participates in the book club for native speakers.

“When I started I only wanted to introduce interesting books, but after a while I realized that it was better to get several titles about the same subject. This way you get different viewpoints and perspectives. So now I mention various topics to the core club members, and then we choose together. The members obviously are very well-read people, and each participant might look at the same thing from a different angle, so it’s very stimulating.”

In the end, independent bookstores, though small, offer a quality of service that is often lacking in bigger enterprises.

“We don’t only sell books,” says Kott. “We read them and know them, and are always ready to advise our customers. We can help through our expertise and knowledge of the field, for example if you are looking for an out-of-print or hard-to-find title.”

“Many Japanese read books in order to improve their English skills,” says Omiya, “and they often come to us asking for suggestions. That’s one of those things at which independent book sellers excel.

“On the other side, there are foreign customers with an extensive knowledge of Japanese history or literature — not the usual authors like Yukio Mishima or Haruki Murakami. They come here and love to talk for hours about their favorite books and authors. So whenever we get some particularly interesting title, we are always careful to save it for them. We pride ourselves in being a shop where knowledgeable readers can find unusual books.”

As long as bookstores like The Blue Parrot and Good Day Books are around, readers will always find a place where they can share their passion with knowledgeable people devoted to make each visit a worthwhile experience.