Bookstores are disappearing everywhere in Japan. According to an industry estimate, the number has fallen by nearly a third over the past decade, hit by a combination of declining population and the spread of the internet.
Some voices have been raised in protest, such as by city dwellers claiming that bookstores are necessary for a vibrant urban environment, but customer numbers continue to decline. And that means that to survive, operators have to be resourceful.
Takashima Shobo, a bookstore with a 72-year history in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, northeast Japan, is a good example.
The store has an old fashioned feel with a huge sign hanging out the front that reads “BOOKS”. Filled with literary works, magazines and picture books, among other publications, it’s a bookworm’s paradise. But no customers were browsing the shelves in the late afternoon as owner Mizuo Takashima, 67, explained how he still managed to turn a profit.
“The store only contributes about 10% of total sales,” Takashima said. “Ninety percent of the profits come from delivery to school libraries and public libraries,” he said.
According to the Japan Publishing Organization for Information Infrastructure Development, there are currently 11,952 bookstores in Japan, down about 30% from 16,722 in 2012.
To keep his business afloat, Takashima visits businesses and schools around town to market his book delivery service, while a part-time clerk tends to the store.
Municipalities that run libraries and schools can help small bookstores a lot if they buy books and other publications from local bookstores instead of vendors in Tokyo and other cities, Takashima said.
Takashima Shobo’s service can provide a “hint on how regional bookstores can survive,” he said.
But such successes are the exception. Local authorities in Tateyama, Toyama Prefecture, where the only bookstore closed in 2015, began in January this year trying to find a new operator ready to open in the city. Indeed, “many residents of the city said a bookstore was essential to keep the city alive,” an official said.
But a person involved with the bankrupt store said the books were “just not selling” because of the town’s declining population. “Even if a new bookstore opens, I think it would still be difficult,” the person said.
The owner of the only bookstore in a city in another prefecture noted that sales of textbooks had dropped significantly due to Japan’s declining birth rate. “Honestly, I’m about to decide if I should shut down because the number of schools has dropped due to the declining population,” he said.
Gross profits for bookstores in Japan would be around 20% after paying the rest of their sales to publishers and distribution agents.
Along with the falling population and dwindling number of book readers in recent years, the increase in the number of convenience stores offering magazines is putting additional pressure on bookstores. They were also negatively affected by the availability of e-books and online shopping.
Not only in rural areas, but even in Tokyo, the number of bookstores has declined by about 30% over the past decade.
The continued decline in the number of bookstores also doesn’t bode well for readership, says Kazuyuki Ishii, executive director of the Japan Bookstore Federation.
“Due to the decrease in the number of bookstores, there is a good chance that the number of readers will decrease, triggering a vicious circle. The time has come for the entire publishing industry to join hands and reflect to countermeasures,” Ishii said.