Walk into this new Tokyo bookstore and at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped into an art gallery. With its elegant glass doors, spacious entryway, books displayed like exhibits on tables and captioned information on the walls, Bunkitsu is clearly no ordinary bookstore.

“That’s what we want people to think — that it’s an art gallery where they can encounter books,” says Hikaru Yoshino, the shop’s 27-year-old public relations officer.

Bunkitsu opened in December 2018 in Tokyo’s fashionable Roppongi district. The bookstore is unusual in that patrons can browse the 90 or so magazines in the reception area for free, but must pay ¥1,500 (about $14) to peruse its 30,000 or so titles on the second floor, where there is also a cafe.

Customers are able to relax in the airy upstairs reading areas and get free refills of tea or coffee provided by the cafe. As the cafe also serves lunch, book hounds can spend all day there if they wish to, without having to go in search of food.

“Bunkitsu is a place for hardcore book lovers and, at the same time, it’s a place that invites people to walk in and discover books they never thought of reading,” Yoshino says.

Book hound heaven: Bunkitsu
Book hound heaven: Bunkitsu’s pay-to-enter system allows them to stock an eclectic assortment of books. | COURTESY OF LIBRO PLUS

There were some initial concerns among the bookstore’s concept team that a fee would discourage potential customers. But the price seemed reasonable considering the fact that a coffee in Tokyo usually costs between ¥400 and ¥500 and that customers would be able to sip from a bottomless cup while reading for two or three hours, says Yoshino.

They also believed that avid bookworms would welcome a space that offered a relaxed atmosphere coupled with the thrill of discovery.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” says Yoshino as he passes by a wall lined with magazines. Flip open a panel displaying a particular magazine and more reading material on a related theme appears. The theme is not always content related — a red-covered art magazine, for example, conceals various books with red covers.

The shelves are curated by section into broad themes like “Travel” or “History” but the books seem tangentially linked.

Lined up next to a history book on Lenin is a series of comic books set during the Russian Revolution. Books are piled haphazardly on tables: a comic book on top of a philosophy book on top of a novel, but they are all linked somehow — the color black, movies, food. Here, calculated disorder creates happenstance.

“We recognize that if you have a particular book in mind, it is difficult to find it quickly here. But finding a new book is a once in a lifetime encounter. We want that surprise to bring customers back again and again,” says Yoshino.

Each book and magazine is the only copy in the store. Miss the chance to buy it and you might never get another. It’s a gamble for Bunkitsu as well.

Unlike other bookstores, Bunkitsu buys its books and does not sell them on consignment, meaning it must keep unsold copies. Books remain until they catch a reader’s eye.

While the store thinks about moving the merchandise, at the same time it prefers not to stock its shelves with popular works just to boost sales. Staff choose books according to their own interests and not based on what’s trending at the time. The entry fee allows the establishment some cushion to stock an eclectic lineup, says Akira Ito, the 36-year-old store manager.

Bunkitsu’s unique business model has not deterred sales so far, according to Ito and Yoshino, who say that between 30 to 40 percent of their customers purchase a book.

“It’s like buying a gift at a museum shop,” says Ito. “People have paid their entry fee so they feel invested in finding a book.”

“They want to take home with them what they experienced here,” adds Yoshino.

“We believe that customers appreciate our passion for books,” Ito says, precisely because Bunkitsu is willing to stock its shelves in such a singular fashion.

Calculated disorder: Bunkitsu
Calculated disorder: Bunkitsu’s shelves are curated by section into broad themes like ‘Travel’ or ‘History.’ | COURTESY OF LIBRO PLUS

Customers come to the shop for various reasons. “I came here because my friend recommended this place and I wanted to get some new ideas for my job,” says Keito Kondo, 28, who does marketing for a beer company.

“I thought I might see books I hadn’t thought of,” he says while sat in the cafe with a number of titles in front of him on sparking inspiration. “I usually buy books that I want from Amazon, but here I found books that I usually don’t read, such as on architecture and art.”

“I didn’t realize that I was interested in fashion until I came here,” says Masato Torikoshi, an 18-year-old student who enjoys studying at Bunkitsu. He twirls his chair to face stacks of fashion books on Issey Miyake, Marc Jacobs and Valentino. “When I need a breather, I pick up a book behind me and riffle through the pages.”

It’s the type of relaxed atmosphere Bunkitsu aims to sell.

“I was happy to see a customer stretch himself full length against a cushion and read,” Ito says. In the back is an elevated platform against a large window where customers can kick off their shoes, lie against one of the colorful cushions and chat, read or drink coffee.

A 45-year-old hairdresser, using the space one Monday afternoon, says that the price is well worth it as people can stay there the whole day. “You can enjoy the sense that you have your own private room,” he says, coffee in hand.

Bookstores are closing down throughout Japan, says Yoshino, citing online behemoth Amazon and the popularity of e-books as possible reasons. But whether the Bunkitsu approach can stem that trend remains to be seen.

He says he is “not sure” if the bookstore’s business model can be replicated elsewhere. While it works in Roppongi, another approach might be needed in a rural area, he says. “You have to look at what’s distinctive about a location. That could lead to different types of bookstores.

“We need to try somehow to make bookstores survive,” says Yoshino. “We hope that creating Bunkitsu is one way to respond to this challenge.”

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