Commentary

Buy the book? – Monocle Magazine

In Japan, a second library is set to open that is funded by private bookseller Tsutaya. Is this evidence of turning over a new leaf or should we throw the book at the commercialisation of a public service?


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.

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