Most devotees of print culture lament the time when Barnes & Noble began to swamp cities across the country with its superstores, driving a lot of independent booksellers out of business.
But there was an upside to that invasion, which New Yorkers of a certain age will remember fondly: the masses of readers able to crowd around the magazine racks at those retail behemoths. For the first time, rather than face the stern warnings of newsstand proprietors (“No looking! You look, you buy!”), readers were free to peruse hundreds of periodicals and acquaint themselves with topics as varied as pro wrestling and punk rock.
These same magazine areas, which then seemed like beacons of a friendlier, more accessible reading culture, now look sad and lonely — dark corners of a dying enterprise.
So I was more than a little surprised when I recently entered the flagship Tokyo store of a multimedia chain called Tsutaya, and saw throngs of people eagerly crowding the magazine section. The store, in the Daikanyama district, felt like a testament to the continued power and relevance of the written word — a place where browsing, reading, and buying books and magazines was a popular and pleasurable experience.
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Japan’s book and magazine industry looks radically different than our own: though many smaller stores have shuttered, casualties of online commerce, E-books have yet to make a major dent in the business, and many magazines disdain the need for a website. For some reason, the Japanese have remained much more connected to the printed word than Americans.
The longer I spent roaming the stacks, the more I became convinced that this store holds the key to understanding that deeper connection. I also felt like I was falling back in love with the printed word myself, which came as something of a shock — I’m a self-confessed, early-adopting, SIM card-swapping travel geek, currently on my seventh Kindle. This was not a nostalgic, Luddite moment, but a response to five specific principles that became increasingly clear to me as I wandered, browsed, read, and reflected.
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1. Writing and reading are fundamentally physical activities
The T-Site store has done more than just amass a formidable collection of books and magazines: it has also figured out how to celebrate the physicality of writing and reading. Take the decorations at Anjin, a luminous bar and lounge on the second floor. The walls are filled with bound volumes of visually inspiring magazines, dating back decades, all available for customers to peruse while they down a sandwich or sip a whisky.
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At one end of the floor is a shop that stocks what is probably the world’s most comprehensive range of writing instruments, and that also serves as a mini-museum featuring over a thousand different pens, displayed as if each were a work of art. The effect is to make these objects seem slick, sexy and desirable, rather than relics of the past.
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The spine and cover designs of books, which used to be the predominant decoration of most of my friends’ apartments, offer a different kind of solace than that which comes from knowing that everything you’ve read lives somewhere in the cloud. Covers and spines are not just decorative items; they are external, tangible reminders of something that may have transformed you internally, emotionally, intellectually. To be able to call them up on your iPad simply isn’t the same as having them surround you — constantly reminding you, when you glimpse them, of the multitudes contained within each one.
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5. Printed books help to make you who you are
There are, of course, other ways of seeing this. For some, Tsutaya just illustrates one more quirk of Japanese society, like the way the country still buys most of its music on CD. Or worse: One could call it a triumph of fetishism, materialism, and consumerism over what ought to be the unadulterated power of pure words.
I wonder. For most voracious readers I know who came of age in the era of physical books, that physicality wasn’t tangential to the reading experience, it was central. I guess that’s why each time I enter this strange, shiny temple to reading I feel something like the primal pleasure I felt, many years ago, upon touching, reading — and buying — actual books.
And now, because I read almost everything on a device of some kind, Tsutaya reminds me of what I’m missing by doing that. When you first start reading a lot, books become your world and share your space, a reflection of their importance in your life. We lose something when they are reduced to data, as opposed to possessions that constantly remind us of what’s inside them. Books in a home were once one of the chief ways to take stock of, engage with, and understand a new friend or a new love. Now you’d need their Amazon password to do that.