Better than fiction - Issue 133 - Magazine | Monocle

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“Selling books is tough,” says Naoyuki Tajima, rebranding project manager for Tsutaya Tokyo Roppongi bookshop, now renamed Roppongi Tsutaya Books. Perhaps. But judging by the number of customers coming through the door today, the appetite for print is alive and well here.


Inviting set-up by the entrance

The bookshop reopened in March after a major makeover. The shop had been innovative when, in 2003, it offered a café where guests could read handsome hardbacks while having a cappuccino (back then it also had a collection of dvds and cds to rent). “Its identity as a bookshop wasn’t strong enough, though,” says Tajima, reflecting on the model. “We wanted to push ourselves as a bookshop once again. We also had to adapt to a rapidly changing society.”

The result is a dazzling collection of some 70,000 books and magazines on everything from food to business, as well as novels from promising young writers. The inventory has increased by nearly 40 per cent and almost half is made up of foreign-language titles, making it one of Japan’s biggest bookshops. And customers can shop from 07.00 through to midnight.


The lounge upstairs serves drinks until midnight


Magazines from around the world

“The reception [from the public] has been great,” says Takae Sasaki, head of the book department. “Our customers are happy to see more print publications on offer. The number of people who like books hasn’t decreased. Some people in their twenties and thirties might consume books online but the parents [among them] still want to read physical books to their children.”

The children’s section carries 10,000 books at any one time, including some great finds on Japanese culture in English, such as Japanese Traditions and Rakugo Emaki (a style of comic storytelling). The Starbucks by the entrance is still there (but might a smaller independent have looked better?), while a lounge bar has been added on the upper floor to offer a more serene space in which to hunker down with a new book. The upper floor is also home to enviable art, photography, fashion and design collections.


Japanese souvenirs

As well as shop-floor staff, the Roppongi team includes six concierges who have put together an impressive selection of titles and created presentations to pique the interests of passers-by. “Designers aren’t necessarily looking for inspiration in design books but they might be inspired by the shapes of plants and come up with an idea,” says Sasaki. “Physical bookshops can generate such accidental ‘meetings’; e-commerce cannot.”   

The team also made a small gallery space to entertain the art crowd. The works of Enrico Isamu Oyama, a New York-based Italian-Japanese artist, sold out within a week after the opening. As did the set of two contemporary ukiyo-e (woodblock) works by Masumi Ishikawa. There is no dvd-rental service today but there are 4,000 cds on sale to meet the ongoing Japanese taste for owning physical products, even in the age of streaming. “This is another beginning for us,” says Tajima. “We have to keep changing.”

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