:: Article

Japanamerica: Manga Drives Manhattan’s Kinokuniya

By Roland Kelts.

Every so often I get what I call the Harry Potter question: will the manga mania of today’s younger generation evolve into a love of literature tomorrow? Young Americans I interviewed for Japanamerica cited more sophisticated, complex and serialized storylines as key factors behind their passion for manga, and young Britons are now being seduced by manga into reading Shakespeare.

That’s all welcome news to booksellers and librarians, who devote increasing swaths of floor and shelf space to titles they can sometimes barely pronounce — relieved that kids are plucking out their iPod plugs long enough to read something.

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The opening of Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya’s latest and largest overseas outlet last month proves a telling example. After 26 years in a cramped, relatively low-ceilinged corner address across from Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, the company has just unveiled a vast new three-story venue on 6th Avenue overlooking Bryant Park, an oasis of green at the center of the city and current home to its biannual Fashion Week frenzies.

At 24,000 square feet, the new store is at least one and a-half times larger than its predecessor, according to manager John Fuller. On a tour of the new space last week, Fuller enthusiastically showed me various upgrades: expanded magazine racks, with the gleaming covers of Japan’s style-obsessed publications positioned near the entrance to lure in nearby fashionistas and other passersby. “Japanese fashion magazines have become very popular,” Fuller tells me. “Even non-Japanese readers buy them.” Books on the broader Asian region and international travel occupy easily navigable aisles and shelves, and the fiction section has grown to include non-Japanese and non-Japan-focused novels, poetry and short stories.

US chain behemoths Borders and Barnes & Noble have diminished the bookstore experience with what Fuller calls “a vanilla formula. We want to stand apart.”

Kinokuniya still caters to its resident and tourist Japanese clientele, but the store is now reaching out to a broader customer base. When I ask Fuller to explain the growth spurt amid a generally moribund market, he doesn’t hesitate: “Manga and anime are the drivers.”

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In the 80s, Kinokuniya’s American customers were motivated by an interest in business and money. In the 90s, it was English teaching. Today, it’s pop culture.

Rows of manga dominate the top floor, which also includes a Japanese-style café and pastry shop and books on art and photography. Fuller estimates that the manga and anime DVD sections have also grown one and a half times, occupying approximately 6,000 square feet of floor space. Broad windows offer floor-to-ceiling views of the park below and the massive stone elegance of the New York Public Library.

I used to visit the old Kinokuniya as a student. With its stacks of books on the histories of ikebana and the tea ceremony, I found it fairly staid. Pop goes that memory, so to speak.

The evolution of the store into a more colorful, approachable and accessible environment mirrors the transformation of its new home: not long ago, Bryant Park was a slightly dangerous, disreputable patch of dirt — the kind of New York plot you hustle past.

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Fuller points out an events space on the top floor and announces an upcoming “cosplay day,” when costumed customers can get in-store discounts. He then shows me a wall space about to be filled by manga artist Takehiko Inoue, whose mural will be revealed on 20 November.

Before I head for a coffee in the now-tranquil park below, I notice that the signs on the manga shelves are written in kanji, katakana and hiragana — with not a word in English.

Fuller shrugs: “These days, katakana’s cool.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, out now in paperback.

Picture: Roland Kelts outside Cafe Manga on London’s South Bank, by Andrew Stevens.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 14th, 2007.