Times are changing for publishing. E-books are here to stay and publishers are trying out a range of digital strategies to entice new customers. The music industry was one step ahead and the large retailers like Tower Records and HMV have all felt the pain of declining business, replaced by iTunes and Amazon. Bookstores are likewise looking at an uncertain future.
Well, one answer to how bookstores can continue to bring in readers to shop may lie in a new type of bookseller that has opened in Shimokitazawa, the laid-back Tokyo neighborhood just west of Shibuya.
The formula is visible in the name: B&B. British readers might be forgiven for thinking the shop is actually a cheap form of accommodation (bed and breakfast), but the two b’s are even better than that — “Book & Beer”, two things we at PingMag certainly love. Having coffee and tea for sale in bookstores has been the norm in other parts of the world for years now, but B&B has opted for a more alcoholic version. There is a proper bar with beer on tap, meaning customers can browse while sipping a chilled bevy or read a purchase with a beer in hand.
But this isn’t just about drinking (there are countless bars in Shimokitazawa, after all!). The books are also highly curated, selected per theme and genre by the staff to match the concept of the store. In other words, the entire place is like a magazine.
We sat down with B&B owner Shintaro Uchinuma to chat about the Shimokita’s latest hangout.
How did you come to open B&B?
It started at the end of 2011 when I had the idea to open a bookstore with Koichiro Shima from Hakuhodo Kettle, who I had worked a lot with in the past. We started searching for a site in early 2012 and by April had rented one, opening in July.
B&B’s concept is to be “a local bookstore for the future”. What is this “local bookstore”?
For a long while people have been saying that it’s a tough time for publishing. Bookstores have been getting less and less, especially “local bookstores” like the small bookshop that might be in front of the station. You could almost say that B&B is the first new entry in the market in the Tokyo metropolitan area for years. The reason why there aren’t people trying to enter the market is because the business model has collapsed.
Koichiro Shima and I both love e-books, online bookstores and large bookshops, but we also really love this kind of small local bookseller. It started when I thought how bad it was that they were disappearing, and that I wanted to make a new business model, one right for the world today. We invite writers and magazine editors for events and to give talks every evening, offering beer and other drinks, and even sell furniture like bookshelves, chairs and lighting, but it all comes down to selling books. We’re trying some things out by trial and error, making a profit overall, but the aim is always to be sell lots of books as a local bookstore.
B&B is located in Shimokitazawa, the neighborhood in Tokyo long known as a bastion of Japanese fringe theatre and music. Are you conscious of your geography when selecting the books and other products?
It is often said that Shimokitazawa is a place for youth subcultures, but in fact all kinds of people live here. In this way, moving away from the image of such subcultures, our line-up isn’t defined according to genre or taste, just like a local bookstore. Small bookshops have limited stock so often cannot supply the books that people want. We could say that’s the forte of a large bookstore. We feel our aim should be to meet the desire to buy books that are interesting, to see events that are interesting. By curating books and planning events that respond to this we are creating a site that is a unifying nexus, like the vortex of a city’s intellectual curiosity. It’s often said that a bookstore is a type of media, and we are trying to do this for real. While supporting the locals who come almost every day, we are also able to bring in people from faraway, passing this onto the area. In this way, we want to grow up together with the area.
We also love the way you arrange the bookshelves. For example, there’s a book on the world’s most beautiful flowers next to a book on how to deal with hay fever. How do you create your bookshelves?
We’re a small shop so we want to create a world that is as wide as possible with the books on one shelf. We are conscious of the distance between the books next to each other, the context that comes out of a few books clumped together, and we try to make the bookshelf interesting. We have also done our utmost to eliminate common genre divisions and store signage denoting this.
When we first opened, the book selection was mostly done by me but now all the staff are doing it. Normally bookstore staff are assigned a genre each but at B&B all the team has jurisdiction simultaneously to touch any bookshelf. Of course, doing this you can get errors and strange ordering, but you can also then make a bookshelf where you have a discovery every day. Everyone throws ideas around — “How about if we put this next to this?” and so on.
You’ve also made special bookshelves with digital books for downloading. You don’t believe in the dichotomy of e-books vs. paper books, right? In the future, how do you think digital and analog publications can co-exist?
Well, this is a bit abstract but I think they’ll both be used differently by people, each will be given a role. People often say that books are like a friend. As people we have families, lovers, work colleagues, people we hardly meet but still think dearly of, friends we recently meet a lot, staff at shops we go to a lot, even strangers we see riding the train at the same time. In this way, our relationship with the digital differs from our relationship with the analog, and with this the books themselves will also change.
Lastly, have you noticed an interesting trend recently among Japanese books or magazines?
I think it’s good times again for small publishers. Every week our sales are strong for small publishers’ magazines like N Magazine, TO Magazine, Nantonaku Critic and so on. Because times are tough new things are coming out of a range of places. Personally I think that everything connected to books is interesting in an overall way, including e-books. Actually I’m writing a book right now looking at the big picture of publishing like that. It’s called ‘The Counterattack of Books’. Please look out for it in the future!
Thank you, Shintaro Uchinuma!
2F 2-12-4 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo