It’s been years since I was a heavy library user. Moving to Japan had something to do with that. I use the public libraries in Tokyo but not often; usually it’s just to borrow a book in Japanese on a work-related topic. And I never linger. Libraries here tend to be an uninviting place to read. Same cramped interior. Same utilitarian furniture. Same fluorescent lighting. To get my ink-on-paper fix, I prefer Tsutaya Books in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district. Few libraries can compete with the experience of a bookshop that’s so complete it offers hope for the future of bricks-and-mortar booksellers.
Which brings me to a story in the Japanese media last week about library makeovers. Specifically, Tagajo: a city in Miyagi prefecture, north of Tokyo, that has signed an agreement with Tsutaya’s parent company to build what the two sides are calling a “centre of cultural exchange”. Their plans call for a space that’s a public library, bookshop, café and restaurant all rolled into one seamless package. Tsutaya’s involvement makes it likely that Tagajo’s library will have all the trappings of, well, a Tsutaya bookshop.
This will be the second time a city has tapped Tsutaya to run a library. The first – in Takeo city, in the southern prefecture of Saga – opened in April, to mostly enthusiastic reviews. Anyone who has browsed the cosy aisles at Tsutaya Books in Daikanyama will immediately spot the design similarities. Hanging and standing lamps and bookshelves with recessed lighting complement the daylight that pours in from the skylight and large ground-floor windows - and not a naked fluorescent bulb in sight. Freestanding shelves on the ground floor and floor-to-ceiling shelves in an upstairs loft hold 200,000 books and reference materials. Amid the stacks there are plenty of wooden tables where you can park yourself with a book for hours. Tsutaya also train the staff and provide the black-and-white uniforms that make them easy to pick out in a crowd.
Presumably, Tsutaya wouldn’t have agreed to the arrangement if it didn’t think there was a chance to make a profit and promote its brand. Inside, you can’t miss the commercial side. There’s a Starbucks near the entrance, shelves crammed with magazines for sale and a corner with thousands of CDs and DVDs to rent. Tsutaya and Takeo have worked out a deal to let users check out books and rent music and movies with a Tsutaya-issued T card, which also works at any Tsutaya shop.
The results are impressive. In the first three months, foot traffic to the Takeo library quadrupled and the number of books borrowed doubled compared to past years. Takeo officials say that Tsutaya will run the library for about 10 per cent less than the €1.1m the city spends annually to operate the facility, while improving on the library’s services.
Not everyone is happy about the change. Some have grumbled about the commercialisation of an institution that should be a public good. Others worry that letting Tsutaya make the decisions will skew the choice of books and reference materials in favour of bestseller lists, and that Tsutaya could collect personal data on millions of library users. These are valid concerns – but so far they haven’t proven to be true. If bringing in Tsutaya to help run a city library attracts more users, isn’t that a better use of public resources?
Kenji Hall is Monocle's Asia editor at large.