How This Tokyo Bookstore Made Me Fall Back In Love With Print

Tom Downey

And why Tsutaya gives me second thoughts about the primacy of digital culture

Most devotees of print culture lament the time when Barnes & Noble began to swamp cities across the country with its superstores, driving a lot of independent booksellers out of business.

But there was an upside to that invasion, which New Yorkers of a certain age will remember fondly: the masses of readers able to crowd around the magazine racks at those retail behemoths. For the first time, rather than face the stern warnings of newsstand proprietors (“No looking! You look, you buy!”), readers were free to peruse hundreds of periodicals and acquaint themselves with topics as varied as pro wrestling and punk rock.

These same magazine areas, which then seemed like beacons of a friendlier, more accessible reading culture, now look sad and lonely — dark corners of a dying enterprise.

So I was more than a little surprised when I recently entered the flagship Tokyo store of a multimedia chain called Tsutaya, and saw throngs of people eagerly crowding the magazine section. The store, in the Daikanyama district, felt like a testament to the continued power and relevance of the written word — a place where browsing, reading, and buying books and magazines was a popular and pleasurable experience.

It’s not just that Tsutaya feels more upscale than other bookstores. It’s that it celebrates words and books, and the people who read and write them, in a thoughtful, seductive, and ultra-contemporary way.

Don’t get me wrong: This is a business, not a cultural institution. It sells books from 7:00 am till 2:00 am every day of the week, closing only to clean and restock. And it’s always packed. This first location has proved such a hit that another site has already opened in the Kanagawa area outside Tokyo, with a third outpost soon to debut in nearby Futakotamagawa district.

Japan’s book and magazine industry looks radically different than our own: though many smaller stores have shuttered, casualties of online commerce, E-books have yet to make a major dent in the business, and many magazines disdain the need for a website. For some reason, the Japanese have remained much more connected to the printed word than Americans.

The longer I spent roaming the stacks, the more I became convinced that this store holds the key to understanding that deeper connection. I also felt like I was falling back in love with the printed word myself, which came as something of a shock — I’m a self-confessed, early-adopting, SIM card-swapping travel geek, currently on my seventh Kindle. This was not a nostalgic, Luddite moment, but a response to five specific principles that became increasingly clear to me as I wandered, browsed, read, and reflected.

1. Writing and reading are fundamentally physical activities

The T-Site store has done more than just amass a formidable collection of books and magazines: it has also figured out how to celebrate the physicality of writing and reading. Take the decorations at Anjin, a luminous bar and lounge on the second floor. The walls are filled with bound volumes of visually inspiring magazines, dating back decades, all available for customers to peruse while they down a sandwich or sip a whisky.

These are those green, hardbound editions that anyone who went to a public library in America up until the 1990s will remember as the pre-microfiche, pre-digital manner of storing old periodicals. They seemed ugly — ungainly and utilitarian — when crammed into the stacks of the mid-Manhattan branch in my high-school days. But here they take on new meaning as vestiges of a disappearing culture. They have a haunting beauty precisely because there will never be anything like them again.

At one end of the floor is a shop that stocks what is probably the world’s most comprehensive range of writing instruments, and that also serves as a mini-museum featuring over a thousand different pens, displayed as if each were a work of art. The effect is to make these objects seem slick, sexy and desirable, rather than relics of the past.

Thinking of the store as a whole, and the way in which volumes of all kinds are beautifully displayed throughout, made me realize something else I’d been missing. The spine and cover designs of books, which used to be the predominant decoration of most of my friends’ apartments, offer a different kind of solace than that which comes from knowing that everything you’ve read lives somewhere in the cloud. Covers and spines are not just decorative items; they are external, tangible reminders of something that may have transformed you internally, emotionally, intellectually. To be able to call them up on your iPad simply isn’t the same as having them surround you — constantly reminding you, when you glimpse them, of the multitudes contained within each one.

2. Human beings make pretty powerful information sources, too

On one of my trips to Tsutaya, I asked a clerk a question about a food periodical and was referred to the “Food Book Concierge.” His comprehensive knowledge of the entire food collection, both books and back issues of magazines, reminded me of the librarians of my childhood, who served as intellectual mentors to an annoyingly curious kid.

The concierge told me of a recent trip he’d taken to Berkeley to meet farm-to-table icon Alice Waters. As part of his vacation, I assumed? No: The trip was paid for by Tsutaya, as research for an exhibit he was curating at the store celebrating her writing.

I did a double take: Can you imagine your local B&N sending a staff member to Japan for research purposes — or even letting them take any time at all to get to know their subject better, so they can share insights with their customers? (Indie bookstores, of course, do more of this, but they lack the deep pockets of a Tsutaya.)

The interaction reminded me of the extent to which, in doing research either for fun or for work, I’ve moved from seeking human guidance to doing all the digging myself, online. Obviously there are huge advantages to the powerful digital tools now at our disposal. But speaking with Tsutaya’s expert reminded me just how important — and enjoyable — it is to add a human perspective. He made connections between ideas I mentioned and stories he’d read in older periodicals (which the store still stocked). And he immediately grasped a concept, about a certain kind of innovation in Japanese cuisine, that had been difficult to define through online searches. Yes, he used his computer to flesh out these ideas, and to locate sources; but I would never have found them without his input.

3. Print combines words and images in a uniquely powerful way

Paging through the magazines sold here helped me understand more about why Japan still venerates print. The magazine section — designed to display not just current, but also back issues — stretches through three of the store’s interconnected buildings, as well as spreading out across several tables, and is almost always mobbed.

The design sensibility of these publications is utterly different than our own: Photos, illustrations, and diagrams are interspersed on nearly every page with short blocks of text. A magazine editor friend explained that, because written Japanese is more dense than English, it’s draining to read an entire page of words alone. Abundant photos and illustrations are essential in order to break up the text, at least in a magazine.

It’s impossible to get the same pleasure scrolling through a tablet feed as I do from turning these thick, glossy, heavily designed pages. And the levels of ingenuity and creativity brought to bear allow you to lose yourself in even the most arcane micro-subject, from where to find the best omelet in Osaka to Lee Marvin’s influence on men’s fashion.

Digital media facilitates a certain kind of browsing, around a topic or based on the interests of a social media group, but it has yet to create a parallel experience to that of flipping through an almost entirely visual magazine — letting certain photos, headlines or designs catch your eye, ignoring others, and simply following the visuals rather than directing the search yourself.

It’s ironic that we’ve adopted the term “browsing” to describe the way we navigate web sites, when the original, true meaning of the word describes an activity which digital utterly fails to replicate.

4. Sometimes, wandering beats being directed

Browsing, of course, also means wandering the stacks of this place — optimized to display the beauty of its wares — and allowing serendipity to dictate what you find.

Though I appreciate the way in which digital culture can direct me towards what I might like — targeted ads notwithstanding — it’s much more satisfying, here, simply to roam. Tsutaya’s layout creates the possibility of fortuitous encounters that you would never have planned or anticipated.

Part of what encourages this roaming are the thoughtful displays that surprise you along the way, and again remind you of the beauty of books as objects: a corner featuring Beat literature, for example, features a glass counter filled with first editions and manuscripts of seminal volumes by Kerouac and Ginsberg.

This reminded me of another time that wandering served me well. Years ago, in the pre-Kindle era, I spent so long on a trip across Yemen, Eritrea, and Ethiopia that I ran out of reading material. One day I ambled out of the main post office in Sana’a and saw a small, thin, well-worn paperback for sale on the street. It was John McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, his book about Bill Bradley’s basketball career at Princeton.

You would have been hard pressed to make up a title that held less interest for me at that time in my life. But there were no other options. I reluctantly bought it, opened it up and…read it in one sitting, discovering one of the most masterful non-fiction writers I’d ever encountered.

5. Printed books help to make you who you are

There are, of course, other ways of seeing this. For some, Tsutaya just illustrates one more quirk of Japanese society, like the way the country still buys most of its music on CD. Or worse: One could call it a triumph of fetishism, materialism, and consumerism over what ought to be the unadulterated power of pure words.

I wonder. For most voracious readers I know who came of age in the era of physical books, that physicality wasn’t tangential to the reading experience, it was central. I guess that’s why each time I enter this strange, shiny temple to reading I feel something like the primal pleasure I felt, many years ago, upon touching, reading — and buying — actual books.

And now, because I read almost everything on a device of some kind, Tsutaya reminds me of what I’m missing by doing that. When you first start reading a lot, books become your world and share your space, a reflection of their importance in your life. We lose something when they are reduced to data, as opposed to possessions that constantly remind us of what’s inside them. Books in a home were once one of the chief ways to take stock of, engage with, and understand a new friend or a new love. Now you’d need their Amazon password to do that.

It’s ironic that it took a journey to Japan, to a bookstore that mostly stocks literature in a language I can’t read, to make me recall, and appreciate anew, one of the key things that made me who I am today.

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