Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Secondhand bookshop exorcizing ghosts of the past

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

The first floor of the crumbling art deco building where my daughter lives in Riga, Latvia, houses a well-patronized secondhand English bookstore. I’ve bought several titles there. It led me to wondering why a business of this kind, a social space for readers, can thrive in the tiny Latvian capital, but not in Tokyo.

The 2015 closure of Good Day Books in Gotanda seemed to many of its loyal customers like the final nail in the coffin. Beside the business of selling books, the store hosted a number of evenings where authors could present their new works. Over the years, guest speakers included the likes of Donald Keene, Edward Seidensticker and Donald Richie, arguably the most prominent expatriate figures in postwar writings on Japan. Richie was a regular visitor to the store. Pining for the existence of a literary salon in Tokyo, one akin to those found in prewar Paris, he lamented that, for the most part, he was condemned to live, “inside the library of my skull.”

Privately run establishments of this kind — San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore springs to mind — are more than just shops, being literary landmarks and social spaces for a city’s sophisticated reading community. Tokyo has a history of such stores, as well as a history of closures.

As I write this, I have a June 1987 copy of the magazine Tokyo Journal at hand, an item I kept from my first trip to Japan. The back pages carry a number of advertisements for secondhand book stores: Richard’s Books in Ogikubo, the Second Story in Umegaoka and The Bookworm in Nagayama, among them. All long gone, there would be later, enterprising people, who would open well-located stores such as The Blue Parrot in Takadanobaba, ventures that have, sadly, gone the way of their predecessors. With the exception of the second floor of Isseido, an antiquarian bookseller in Jimbocho, Infinity Books appears to be the last fully operative secondhand English-language bookshop in Tokyo.

It’s less than five minutes walk from Asakusa Subway Station to the store, but it takes a moment, once I’ve crossed Azumabashi Bridge, to orient myself along a deserted back street before I come out onto a thoroughfare humming with traffic, but a notable absence of pedestrians along its sidewalks.

This part of Sumida Ward was practically eviscerated by incendiary bombs dropped from low flying B-29 planes on the night of March 9, 1945. Aerial photographs taken after the raids show the scorched skull of the city, the eastern districts where the bookstore now stands. Reduced to the flatness of a cremation tray, the only unharmed structures were the river bridges, left intact by American bomber pilots under instructions to spare them for use by an imminent occupation army. Of the estimated 80,000-100,000 civilian losses that night, some of the highest concentrations of dead were here in Sumida Ward.

“It may explain why the rents are so ridiculously low in this area,” Nick Ward, the owner of Infinity Books, opines, citing an aversion among many Japanese for inhabiting areas associated with forms of defilement synonymous with death.

Located on the first floor of an anonymous concrete block largely set aside for residential use, visitors undergo a transition in ambience as they enter a store characterized by the prevalence of wood. It’s a little like walking across a highway into a forest. The shelves, placed on wood flooring, were made by a carpenter friend of Ward. Ceiling-high shelves are arranged like raised parterres in a knot garden, one section of the store concealed from the other.

Ward hails from the West Riding of Yorkshire town of Harrogate, known for its high quality, loose-leaf tea and a number of formal English gardens. It’s also a spa town, where water, impregnated with sulphur, iron and salt, is drawn from wells, then fed into pump rooms. Perhaps there wasn’t a great deal to detain him in Harrogate. At 18, Ward left the country for a kibbutz in Israel, a prelude to over two itinerant decades that would see him living in continental Europe, the United States, various parts of Southeast Asia and Australia, where he worked as a chef in a hotel. The Asia-Pacific route finally beached him up in Japan in 1988, where, following a well-established pattern among financially pressed foreign residents, he undertook a number of English teaching posts.

With the closet entrepreneur in his character getting the better of him, he plunged into a business partnership with another expatriate, opening The Fiddler, a popular British pub located in a Takadanobaba basement. Another co-owned venture led to the opening of Caravan Books in Ikebukuro. When the enterprise failed to turn a profit after two years, he removed the stock to his home in Kawaguchi in Saitama Prefecture. Selling online through retailers such as Amazon, ABE and Biblio, Ward’s business prospered, but with thousands of books piling up in his home, he would soon face a domestic rebellion. He doesn’t elaborate on whether the problem was siroccos of dust motes, pinched space, or the prospect of armies of paper-mulching white ants, but Ward’s wife informed him the books would have to go. The benign solution was the establishing of Infinity Books, which opened in March 2014. The store currently has a stock of some 15,000 titles.

When pressed to define the type of customer the store caters to, Ward mentions the occasional Japanese visitor, who, “come in mostly out of curiosity, but seem at a loss about what the store is exactly.” Backpackers from cheap lodgings in nearby Asakusa come in looking for Japanese fiction (Haruki Murukami is popular), manga in English and Japanese learning texts. There are long-term customers and online buyers.

“Its still a labor of love,” Ward says about a business where profits can be elusive. When asked how he explains the decline in used book stores in Tokyo and elsewhere, he cites the emergence of chain stores such as Bookoff.

“Before these came along, used stores could charge what they liked,” he says, adding that such operations can sell mass-market books for as little as $1.

Used books on Amazon undercut stores, then the advent of tablet readers such as Kindle and iPad altered the way people not only shop, but browse and read. “The rents never change,” he muses, “If anything, they get higher.”

When I comment on how reasonable the prices are at Infinity Books, he responds, “I’m not making any money because I’m being fair.”

Ward is referring to the prices he pays for books people bring in to sell, which are considerably higher than rivals such as Bookoff. Ward has a database of every title in the store, which he checks against sites such as BookFinder.com to make sure his items are compatible with standard world pricing.

Ward has a license to serve alcohol, which helps to rustle up a little more income, and turn the store into a convivial spot, where customers can prop up the counter or pull up a chair and enjoy a glass of beer or wine. I notice a couple of guitars, a bass and banjo on stands in a corner of the shop.

Acoustic music features regularly at Infinity Books, and on the Friday evening I drop in, there are two Japanese musicians, Gen Hikibuki, a guitarist, and Aki Kanke, a roots singer, who, between belting out soulful blues lyrics, blows some mean harmonica riffs.

On the second and last Saturdays of each month the store hosts open sessions and open-mic evenings. Much as Ward loves music, and the stage the store provides for performers, he is emphatic that the music and bar side of the store is secondary to the book business, and would like to reaffirm Infinity Books literary credentials with more book-related events. “Nothing highbrow,” he stresses, “just people enjoying things like poetry readings and book launches in a relaxed atmosphere.”

Bookshops can mean a multitude of things to those who love them. George Whitman, the longest serving proprietor of the legendary Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, once called the establishment a, “socialist Utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”

Clearly, the times have changed. Infinity Books is never going to be the driving force in the creation of a contemporary version of the Bloomsbury Group, or the setting, like MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, for an efflorescence of a new folk movement, but as a venue for informal mingling and book discussions, visitors may be able to experience a taste of literary Bohemia, even here in Tokyo.

It’s deathly quiet on the street outside at this advanced hour of the evening as the interview runs down and our conversation returns to the dark, final months of the war, and the incinerated earth where his store now stands. Ward mentions that there are still exorcism temples in an area haunted by the past.

Dedication keeps him close to his center of operations in the most literal sense. Reminding me of a vintner I once met in Bordeaux, who slept protectively above his wine vats while they were fermenting, he points to a futon he uses six nights a week, an arrangement that keeps him close to his stock.

Isn’t he afraid of poltergeists, I ask, after he mentions strange inter-mural sounds and moving objects in the shop. Ward doesn’t elaborate on the imperviousness of no nonsense Yorshiremen to the supernatural, but seems unfazed by paranormal occurrences at the store.

He did bring in a shaman, though, to find out what was going on, the medium pronouncing whatever it was a benevolent presence. Advised to place a cup of sake and other inducements to leave the premises on a shelf above his computer corner, no more sightings were reported for a couple of weeks until an upstairs neighbor came down to the shop to complain that his son had seen the ghost in their bathroom. “The thing had buggered off upstairs!” Ward chuckles.

You won’t hear stories such as this when you shop at most of Tokyo’s well-stocked, but sanitized bookstores, run by staff trained to serve customers with the efficiency of cyborgs. When you enter an establishment such as Infinity Books, you are immediately surrounded by human narratives. Its something you won’t come even close to experiencing when you switch on an e-book.

Asked if he predicts a turn in fortune for the used English book market in Tokyo and his store in particular, Ward brightens: “Since we’re the last man standing, I hope we can prosper.”

Infinity Books and Event Space is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays and national holidays. For more information on the events schedule, visit www.infinitybooksjapan.com.