Our Lives

Crowdfunding campaign tries to save Tokyo's beer and books

What The Dickens! and Infinity Books look for support amid the coronavirus pandemic

by David Cortez

Contributing writer

What The Dickens! owner John Coyle should be planning a party. This November, his pub turns 25 years old and that’s cause for a celebration.

The establishment, located in Ebisu, has served as a hub for the international community since 1995, hosting live music shows, charity fundraisers and holiday feasts. And while he’s weathered tough times before, Coyle, like most of the rest of us, didn’t see a global pandemic coming.

“We’ve been through four recessions,” Coyle says through a thick Scottish accent. “First there was a slump with the Y2K paranoia, then another slump in 2004. After that were the Lehman shocks and then the earthquake. But with all of those we were able to stay open and maintain cash flow. Now, it’s completely different in the fact that our cash flow has just dried up completely.”

With the pub closed, customers haven’t been able to come out like they used to. Even when things reopen, it’s unsure how many will return as the pandemic has hit both people’s health and their finances.

As a pub that hosts gigs, What The Dickens! was hit by the government’s request in March that all live houses close to prevent the spread of coronavirus. That makes it about 90 days with zero business.

“Our business relies on Friday and Saturday being packed out, and that has gone away,” says Coyle. “Even if we can get over this initial hump with no business, it’s going to be a struggle to pay the rent.”

Of course, Coyle is not alone in this current predicament. Nick Ward, a close friend of Coyle and himself the owner of a popular used-book store, echoes the same concerns when it comes to his own business. Tucked away in Sumida Ward a short walk from Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood, Infinity Books has also been closed for the past two months.

“The book industry was already in bad shape,” says Ward. “If I wasn’t teaching English on the side, if I wasn’t hosting events where I could sell drinks in the store and if I only sold books, I would have already gone out of business. But this situation makes it impossible to do any of that.”

Both What The Dickens! and Infinity Books have another thing in common, however: a community that supports them. And that community has spoken up in the form of donations to a crowdfunding campaign, “Support and Save What The Dickens and Infinity Books,” a measure that both Coyle and Ward were initially uncomfortable with.

“I think I speak for John as well when I say this, it’s a little bit uncomfortable when you have to say ‘help,’ especially when we are not the only ones hurting,” says Ward.

The campaign, which is aiming to raise ¥4 million by May 31, has found more than 200 supporters and raised just over ¥3.1 million at the time of publishing this story.

Stephen Young, a 15-year regular at What The Dickens! donated to the campaign and believes it is important to support local businesses.

“It has been running for 25 years, and John Coyle is one of the kindest and most generous individuals you will find in Tokyo,” says Young. “I have seen him support charities, musicians, other businesses, as well as people just down on their luck. He has been there for people during some of the worst crises in Tokyo, such as the financial crash of 2008 and the Fukushima quake in 2011. To think of Tokyo without the Dickens is a sad thought indeed. I hope everyone can contribute now to keep this great institution alive.”

Coyle is set to reopen What The Dickens! on June 1 and Ward will follow suit by reopening the doors to Infinity Books on June 2. Both men say they are looking forward to mingling with the community again, in the safest way possible.

“We are humbled that people want to help,” says Ward. “We are humbled by how much they really care. It gives us confidence to know that we are providing a good service. We really appreciate the people who have helped us, even though we are all struggling together.”

If you want to join the effort to help What The Dickens! and Infinity Books, you can do so via the Campfire crowdfunding project at https://camp-fire.jp/projects/view/267693

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