MILLIONS OF TITLES GO ONLINE

Jinbo-cho sellers share book info database

by Reiji Yoshida

Jinbo-cho, Japan’s mecca for book lovers, is undergoing a quiet transformation that will change the way people browse for books.

The district in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward hosts 45 bookstores for new books and 120 offering rare and secondhand books, with estimated combined holdings of 3 million titles and 10 million books.

An electronic database is now being constructed to catalog these inventories on a Web site for the public.

By spring, anyone with Internet access will be able to search through most of the holdings of the three leading bookstores in the area — Sanseido Book Store, Shosen and Iwanami Book Center. By the end of next year, 1 million titles of used books will be added to the database.

A database covering 130,000 used books sold in Jinbo-cho is already available at the Web site jimbou.info/ and will be combined with the database of new books in the spring.

“We don’t want to lose to virtual bookstores” like Amazon.com, said Kazuo Nobuhara of Sanseido Book Store Ltd. “That’s one of the reasons (we launched the project).”

Jinbo-cho has the highest concentration of bookstores in the world, according to industry sources.

But the book business has drastically changed, particularly in the past decade, and is affecting even the prestigious Jinbo-cho outlets.

Fewer young people read books today as other media, including TV and the Internet, have risen in popularity, and discount used-book chains, including Bookoff, have rapidly sprung up in suburban areas across the country.

As a result, prices in the secondhand-book market have plummeted, including sets of complete works.

For example, a 36-volume set of Yukio Mishima’s works, priced at 165,000 yen in 1994, was sold for only 42,000 yen in 2004 in Jinbo-cho.

As well as the sinking prices, people can now buy new and used books with just a few clicks on the computer.

“This is a virtual project to promote real bookstores in Jinbo-cho,” said Shoichi Yagi, talking about the plan to revive sales. Yagi runs the popular rare book store Yagi Book Store Co. and is one of the key people behind the Web site search engine project.

Yagi said the main purpose of the online index is to make the bookstores more easily accessible to people by offering them information. The Web site does not sell books online. Its purpose is to lure people to the neighborhood by offering information about each bookstore, train and subway maps, and places to eat and drink in the area.

After linking up their inventory databases in the spring, Sanseido, Iwanami and Shosen will refer customers to one another’s Jinbo-cho stores if they do not have the desired book in stock.

The integration of the rival companies’ inventory data “is probably the first attempt in the retailing industry in this country,” Nobuhara of Sanseido said.

Shops can see their rivals’ stock lists, causing several bookstores to be reluctant to join the database.

But the project’s participants hope that sharing the inventory index for the sake of readers will help bring back book lovers to the real stores in Jinbo-cho.

The district’s reputation as a destination for book lovers dates to 1856, when one of the predecessors of the University of Tokyo moved there. Other universities, including Meiji University, built there soon afterward to meet the rising demand of academics and students during the country’s modernization.

The district has a rich history and through the years has been a hangout for famous scholars and writers as well as professional book buyers. It even survived heavy bombings during World War II.

“Many scholars from across the country come to Jinbo-cho after attending academic conferences in Tokyo,” Yagi Book Store owner Yagi said.

Many of the stores selling used books specialize in topics ranging from ancient Japanese literature and ukiyo-e woodblock prints to Western art and “manga” comics. Browsers can find Chinese and Russian books as well as magazine back issues and books on contemporary subcultures.

Many popular writers, including the late Ryotaro Shiba and Seicho Matsumoto, had favorite stores in Jinbo-cho where they would hunt for rare books to inspire their fiction.