Commentary / Japan

What we’ll miss when bookstores disappear

The Junkudo bookstore, located on Shijo-dori in the bustling center of Kyoto, closed for good at the end of February. That was a sad moment for me and many other Kyotoites, in particular those devoted to reading and writing subjects on literature and the humanities, for whom Junkudo was a favorite bookstore.

The event appeared to symbolize the current plight of the publishing industry. It felt as though the last fortress of bookstores in Kyoto had just crumbled away.

The dwindling number of people visiting bookstores is attributed not just to the declining sale of books and magazines, but more importantly to the increasingly common practice of people buying books on e-commerce sites.

Books have long been deemed one of the items most suited for e-commerce. Indeed, Amazon.com Inc. first came into being in 1995 as an online book distribution system.

Information on new books is publicized through advertisements by the publisher, book reviews by newspapers and other media or by word of mouth. Readers place online orders for the book based on such pre-publication information or for their own reasons. Some may have liked authors’ previous books and place orders for new ones as soon as they’re out.

The advantage of an online bookshop is the overwhelmingly low transaction cost, since there’s no need to pay the costs associated with operating a shop, such as rent and personnel, which together account for a majority of expenses incurred by “brick and mortar” bookstores.

Moreover, major players like Amazon get most of their books directly from publishers without going through intermediary distributors — a practice that is believed to reduce purchasing costs by at least 10 percent. This explains why Amazon can afford to offer free delivery service to its Prime customers.

Searching for a book on an e-commerce site will bring up information on its content, customer reviews and what’s trending among similar books. Customers use these information to weigh their purchases. Books are usually delivered the day after the order is placed. Customers can save the time and cost of going to a bookstore and, for many customers, the cost of delivery.

Those who have already decided what book to buy can order even more quickly online. Nevertheless, there are many book lovers who still see value in the joy of physically holding a book — a factor that the Junkudo bookstore used to emphasize in its ads. Such people don’t go to bookstores just to buy books, they enjoy flipping through pages, rating well-written books and being impressed by excellent bindings.

People who are really fond of reading spend one to two hours at a bookstore, selecting a number of books from the shelves and flipping through pages while searching for a book that they really want to buy.

When I was younger, what I enjoyed more than anything else was going to a bookstore and experiencing the pleasure of touching the books. Scholars in social sciences like myself expand and deepen our knowledge through the process of discovering books of true value. The closure of bookstores deprives scholars of opportunities for intellectual exploration and discoveries.

For people who buy books online, the next stage will be buying and reading e-books. Once an order is placed for an e-book, the contents can be quickly downloaded to a smartphone or computer, and easily read anywhere.

Another advantage of e-books is that readers can easily place bookmarks on any page of the book and look up words and phrases. But e-books have serious shortcomings.

Several years ago I read an e-book version of the Japanese translation of a highly interesting academic publication. I wanted to criticize points made by the author in an essay I was contributing to a magazine. But I had difficulties writing the criticism while reading the electronic edition so I ordered the print edition on Amazon.

As I flipped through the nearly 500 pages of the book, I felt I was able to grasp the entire picture of what the author was saying. When I read again those portions that I had bookmarked in the e-book, I was able to grasp the author’s message in its full depth and width.

This experience tells me that what I gain by reading the electronic version of a book is nothing more than piecemeal knowledge. In other words, what the author is trying to convey to the readers cannot be fully comprehended unless the book is read in its original form.

Takamitsu Sawa is vice director of the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Kizugawa, Kyoto Prefecture.

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