My Little Secondhand Bookstore, by Miho Tanaka
Yosensha, 2012 [No English translation available]
蟲文庫 (Mushi Bunko) can be found on a street in Kurashiki, Okayama lined with warehouses built in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and sporting the traditional white walls and black tiles. Visitors are not always sure that it is in fact a bookstore, since Miho Tanaka has also filled the shelves with moss collecting kits and CDs reflecting her own eccentric tastes, and holds occasional readings and concerts in the evenings. Turtles and cats sun themselves in the small backyard, which also shelters a telescope and her moss samples.
Reading her book of essays on her 20 years as a secondhand bookseller, it was hard for me to imagine Miho Tanaka ever doing anything else, but the first 10 years seem to have been rather touch-and-go. When she was just 21, Tanaka quit her job of two years, and before she was even fully aware of what she was doing, she found herself announcing to the owner of a secondhand bookstore she frequented that she was going to open her own bookstore. She had begun working right after high school, but her employer’s indifference to labor laws resulted in Tanaka reaching her physical breaking point after just 10 months. Since then she had been working odd jobs on a part-time basis.
Tanaka’s decision to open her own secondhand bookstore was based solely on her love of books and her lack of capital. It was sheer luck that she found her first store front (she stayed here from 1994 and moved to her current location about six years later) since no one wanted to rent to such a young, inexperienced girl who could only pay 50,000 yen a month in rent (about $455 at today’s exchange rate).
When she went back and checked her diary as she was writing this book, Tanaka was surprised to find that in a single day she had quit her job, made the decision to open a secondhand bookstore, begun her search for a store to rent, and bought a primer on running secondhand bookstores. Her budget was only 1 million yen ($9,111), and her stock consisted of her own personal library and her father’s contribution of a 39-volume set of Japanese classics.
Since she started the bookstore with barely any books on the shelves, she couldn’t live off the proceeds and had to work part-time jobs after she closed the bookstore in the evening. Tanaka worked at a coffee shop and a bakery, served as cashier at a convenience store and sorted mail after hours at the post office for 10 years until her father’s death left her so exhausted and emotionally depleted that she couldn’t keep up this pace. Around the same time, she wrote an article about observing moss for a small magazine, which led to profiles of her store in the magazines “Brutus” and “Kunel.” This publicity, playing up the eccentric lady shop owner who loves moss, has helped to sustain the store ever since. These two events enabled Tanaka to focus her energies on the bookstore.
Tanaka compares her day sitting behind a desk to the life of sea anemones, attached to rocks in tide pools, waiting for their prey to come to them. I found this metaphor to be quite apt because reading this book was similar to watching a tide pool as a vivid miniature world opens up before your eyes. At first glance, sitting at a desk all day might look boring, but Tanaka says that life comes to her in the form of peculiar customers and unexpected events. There was the older man who fell into the habit of stopping by the bar for a pick-me-up after work and then visiting her store, red-faced and tipsy, to buy a book on religion before heading home to his wife. There were the people who asked her to watch her children for them as if she were a daycare service, and the two unattended dogs that dropped by for the day once (she decided they must be her deceased grandparents, checking up on her). And then there was the community she created through the readings and concerts she held in the bookstore.
Over the years, the stock in her bookstore has come to reflect this community since about 90% of her stock consists of books she buys from her customers. People with similar interests buy books in her store and sell their books to her in turn, occasioning comments from customers that visiting her store is like looking at their own bookshelves.
Before writing this book, Tanaka had published another book,「苔とあるく」(Walking with Moss), a primer on observing and collecting moss. She feels an affinity with moss and its preference for shade and corners. People don’t usually notice moss, but Tanaka finds that when you look closely, the diversity of its forms and its ecology are surprisingly dramatic.
I was told that I must look at moss under the microscope to appreciate its beauty, and this has proven to be true. Peering through the lens, I slowly bring the image into focus, and the instant the picture sharpens, I am flooded with an indescribable, intoxicating sensation similar to dizziness, relieving me of any sense of my own physical size and weight. I can hardly bear it. I dream of one day dissolving into this slow-moving ocean of green cells.
Secondhand bookstores seem like a losing proposition through the lens of conventional economic theory, at best a harmless if penurious way to pursue one’s hobby at work. Just as the humble moss was left behind in the “upward progression” of more sophisticated land plants such as ferns and seed plants, Tanaka recognizes that secondhand bookstores diverge from the main road of commerce. I think Miho Tanaka deserves the last word.
But even though I know there is no future for secondhand bookstores, occasionally I break away from the high-speed freeway pace of this world and stand in one place. And maybe secondhand bookstores and moss collecting grant us moments like this. This bare-bones bookshop where time seems to have stopped is my mainstay precisely because it allows me to entertain the illusion that a single book in the great wide ocean of books and the words inside of it can be passed on far into the future, just as the moss growing here now has survived through the ages.
I was relieved to find that, four years after she published this book, Mushi Bunko is still thriving, and she occasionally updates her blog. She also followed up her book on moss with a book about turtles (「亀のひみつ 」, 2013), an anthology of stories and poems that feature moss, ferns and other life forms that grow from spores (「胞子文学名作選」, 2013) and an illustrated reference book on moss (「ときめくコケ図鑑」, 2014), so she really seems to have found her niche.